Nov. 11, 2010
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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- Two seasons ago, Oklahoma was expected to be a Final Four contender and the Sooners delivered, sending Courtney and Ashley Paris out in style.
With the Paris twins gone, most predicted Oklahoma would drop off last season. Instead, the Sooners made a surprise return to the NCAA semifinals and finished 27-11.
Same song, third verse?
"We were sitting here this time last year and everybody was telling me how much we had lost and how were we possibly going to move forward and we ended up going back to the Final Four," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "And we're here in the same position this year."
Indeed. The Sooners are without three players -- Nyeshia Stevenson, Amanda Thompson and Abi Olajuwon -- who were taken in the WNBA draft and are trying to work in six newcomers, including five freshmen. Shooting guard Whitney Hand, the Big 12 Conference freshman of the year in 2009, won't return from a knee injury until January at the earliest. The same injury kept her out most of last season.
But none of that seems to deter the 10th-ranked Sooners, who will open at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Nov. 13.
"We are just going to have to keep practicing and preparing well every day," said senior guard Danielle Robinson, a preseason first-team All-America pick and a starter on both Final Four squads.
"We just have to keep getting better. That is what we did the two times that we went, was that we kept getting better. And if we did have a bad day, we turned it right around and we had good days in a row. So that is what we have to continue to do and learn from these past two seasons."
Robinson, a 5-foot-9 speedster, averaged a team-high 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game last season. One knock on her has been a lack of 3-point shooting, but she and Coale say Robinson might make shooting from behind the arc a more common occurrence.
"Last year, what you saw was that she was a good player all year long," Coale said, "but she figured out how to be a great player at the most important time in games and that's a very difficult thing to do. If we had an opportunity to win a game I knew that she would find a way to make the play that gave us a chance and that gave our team incredible confidence down the stretch."
More will be expected of her fellow senior, forward Carlee Roethlisberger, who has struggled with consistency throughout her career. She averaged 6.7 points per game last season and started for a time after Hand went down with an injury before being supplanted in the lineup by guard Jasmine Hartman.
"You should expect more out of yourself every year," Roethlisberger said.
Coale has raved about Hartman's improvement and sophomore center Joanna McFarland made big strides toward the end of last season. Both figure to nab starting jobs.
The return of Hand, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a Thanksgiving holiday tournament last year, also figures to give Oklahoma a boost entering the always-rugged Big 12 portion of its schedule. She had been cleared to practice in June but underwent microfracture surgery in August after cartilage damage was found.
Before her injury last season, she averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range.
"I'm an athlete and I want to be out there playing," she said. "I know my time is coming and I'm as patient as I can be right now."
A potential third straight Final Four berth could hinge on the development of the Sooners' freshmen and 6-foot-5 junior-college transfer Jelena Cerina. One of the freshmen, Nicole Griffin, is 6-foot-6. Another, 6-foot-2 Jacqueline Jeffcoat, is the daughter of former Dallas Cowboys star Jim Jeffcoat, and Hand already is comparing guard Aaryn Ellenberg to former Connecticut star Renee Montgomery.
"What we get in this class is a little bit of every position, which is not common," Coale said. "So you've got a mixed group and it has, in some ways, actually aided the teaching process because you can put those guys together and everybody fits a spot and they can really work and learn well together."