Having not played well in weeks, Sooner women must turn it around to take next step
The No. 5 seed in Los Angeles, Oklahoma faces Portland at 8 p.m. Saturday as it begins its NCAA tournament trek
Jennie Baranczyk knows.
It’s not clear if her team knows.
It’s led by the triumvirate of fifth-year (and sixth) Sooners Madi Williams, Taylor Robertson and Ana Llanusa, a group that may claim more collective starts than any trio in the nation.
In fact, Llanusa’s been around so long, Saturday’s first-round NCAA tourney contest against Portland will mark her second Big Dance; except Williams’ and Robertson’s first was just last season, while Llanusa’s, thanks to injury, was all the way back in 2018, netting 13 points against DePaul in College Station, the last of coach Sherri Coale’s 19 straight tourney trips.
But do Williams, Robertson and Llanusa know?
Long-serving veterans, yes, but are they grizzled enough to understand … how poorly their team’s been playing and the mental adjustment now required?
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Tipping off inside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion at 8 p.m. Saturday, victory will be required that day and Monday, likely against the home-court Bruins, if Baranczyk’s second year at the program’s helm is to produce another step on the ladder back to the top after last season’s second-round exit to Notre Dame.
Of course, what Baranczyk and the roster that trio leads has done last season and this one is preposterously terrific.
Of course, nobody thought OU would be back Big Dancing a year ago and nobody thought it would arrest a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season crown this one.
But having sprinted past expectation — originating when many thought the best of OU’s two new basketball coaches, coming in together following the 2020-21 seasons, was a guy named Porter Moser; spoiler, he wasn’t — can the Sooners now play up to the responsibility lapping those expectations now demands?
Baranczyk knows her squad’s been nothing like that lately. Her words are those of a coach whose team has hardly been present.
She was apologetic after the Sooners welcomed a crowd of more than 10,000 with their worst conference performance of the season, a 67-45 Feb. 25 loss to Texas, in Norman, just six days after leading Kansas by only a point after three quarters before squeaking away with six-point win.
“We’re going to go in one of two directions right now … I think we’re going to go in the right direction,” Baranczyk said after the Longhorns. “But we’ve got choices to make, and we’ve got to be able to choose to respond how we want to respond.”
The Sooners have not gone in the right direction.
Had they, they wouldn’t have followed with an impossibly bad performance — 26 turnovers; sheesh — against Kansas State, also at home, one requiring Skyler Vann beat the buzzer after two missed Wildcat free throws just to reach overtime, after which the Sooners finally prevailed 90-86.
Then came Bedlam, March 4, in Stillwater, where 16 first-half turnovers, crushing foul trouble and nothing happening on the perimeter forced OU to change its game and purposely attack the paint with its post game.
It was a tribute to the Sooners they come up with a Plan B and prevailed, but it was also the fourth straight game Plan A mostly went nowhere, a fact quickly forgotten in the excitement of tying for the regular season conference crown.
Things were sure to improve at the Big 12 tournament, right?
Tenth-seeded and 20-loss TCU had OU beat until Vann repeated her final-seconds heroics to net a 77-76 victory.
Previously, the Sooners had topped the Horned Frogs by 27 and 23 points.
“At the end of the game,” Baranczyk said, “I’m proud of the way that our players have stepped up and been able to make some big plays.”
An artful choice of words.
Because the rest of the game, not so much.
Naturally, third-seed Iowa State beat OU 82-72 the next day, killing hopes of NCAA tournament hosting duties a second straight year.
Funny enough, a trip inside the the Sooner-Cyclone boxscore actually offers some hope.
Though OU averages 16.8 turnovers per game — too many to begin with — it averaged 22.5 from Texas to TCU, but turned it over a reasonable 14 times against Iowa State.
Though OU has shot 45.3 percent for the season, it shot a collective 40.4 percent (101 of 250) from Texas to TCU, yet made 44.3 percent (27 of 61) against Iowa State and 18 of those 27 made shots were assisted.
But while the Sooners may have been efficient, there was a gear missing.
“I think we could have done a better job coming out ready to play,” OU leading scorer Madi Williams said before pricelessly adding, “And when I say that, I just mean being aggressive and, you know, being ready to guard the ball.”
Which is pretty much everything.
Baranczyk appeared to foreshadow the riot act she may have since read her team.
“I did not like our response in a lot of areas,” she said. “In games that we’re really good, we respond really well … This game we needed to respond a lot better.”
Point guard Neveah Tot made it sound like she knew the score.
“I hate losing, but maybe this is a good loss for us to kind of find our way for the … tournament,” she said. “Perhaps, say, lose [at] conference and then make a run for the Final Four.”
That’s terribly unlikely, because No. 1 overall seed South Carolina will be waiting for OU in the third round should it get there. Still, that’s the spirit.
Baranczk, meanwhile, has been watching (and acknowledging) bad things accumulating. To date, she’s failed to get them to stop.
Tot seems to get it.
Here’s hoping, a couple weeks late, the Sooners’ leaders do, too.
They’ve come too far to stand still.
What they need is two more wins.