Nov. 2, 2001

NORMAN, Okla. - Oklahoma's emergence as a force in women's basketball can be traced to the arrival of All-America Stacey Dales, although give an assist to serendipity.

Coach Sherri Coale sent an assistant to Canada five years ago to watch a potential recruit play. The coach wound up seeing Dales as well, and immediately got on the phone.

"She said, 'We have found a savior,"' Coale said.

With Dales running things for the Sooners, Oklahoma has advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament each of the past two years after never having done it. The Sooners won the Big 12 regular-season title last year and played host to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, drawing more than 10,000 for each game.

The year before Dales arrived, the Sooners went 5-22. Not long before that, in 1990, Oklahoma had dropped its women's program, citing lack of support. It was restored in response to the public outcry.

"Would we have been able to do what we've done without Stacey Dales? No way," said Coale, in her sixth year as coach. "If not her, we would have had to have someone just like her."

Not likely. The 6-foot Dales is a perfect fit in Coale's uptempo offense, a player who can run, score inside and outside, and is an outstanding passer.

"She is mature and articulate and outgoing and has fabulous people skills," Coale said. "She's a kind person and she's a fabulous basketball player. The mix of all that is what has made her unique."

Dales was raised in Brockville, Ontario, where she often found herself as the only girl in any game she played. After watching NBA games on television, she would head outside to the driveway to try to copy what she had seen.

Always a good athlete, Dales developed her no-look passes and nifty ball handling while leading her high school team to a three-year record of 126-6. Then Coale came calling, offering Dales a chance to make an immediate impact in a rebuilding program.

"I knew Oklahoma was in the South, but I didn't know where on the map it was," Dales said. "I went to the atlas and checked it out. I said to my parents, 'Uh oh, this is pretty far. But while it's pretty far, it sounds pretty darn good.'

"They saw tremendous potential in my game. The combination of my own confidence and their confidence in me was a very attractive reason for me coming here."

Dales was expected to make a difference as a freshman in 1997-98, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening minutes of her first game. Oklahoma went 8-19.

"It took that first year to really open my eyes to the necessity of physical strength in this game," Dales said. "You have to be able to hold your own. Over the years, I've just become stronger and stronger."

The following year, Oklahoma went 15-14 and played in the Women's NIT. Then in 1999-00, the Sooners broke through with a 25-8 record and tied for the conference regular-season title. They stunned Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament, rallying from a 17-point deficit to win on the road.

Last season, after playing for the Canadian team in the Sydney Olympics, Dales averaged 16.1 points, 7.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game to become Oklahoma's first All-American.

"She's as competitive a kid as I've ever seen," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "The thing I've noticed about her is she likes to make plays at the end of the game that decide games. I've seen her make play a defensively, I've seen her make a big assist, I've seen her hit a big shot. She can do a lot of things."

The Sooners went 28-6, losing to Washington in the NCAA West regional semifinals. They played poorly in that game - Dales got into early foul trouble and never got going - and failed to meet their goal of going past the round of 16.

Dales spent part of this summer in school, leaving her on track to graduate in May. She spent time with her family in Canada, and is rested and ready for what she hopes is a memorable year for her and the other five seniors.

"We want to go all the way. I think we have all the necessary elements to do that," she said. "You have to set your sights high to be successful, and that's what we're doing."

By OWEN CANFIELD
AP Sports Writer