Oklahoma St. going for WNIT title
Cowgirls pressing on despite tragic November plane accident
STILLWATER, Okla. -- One game into the season, Oklahoma State lost head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a fatal plane crash in Arkansas.
As the season reaches its very last days, the Cowgirls are still playing.
After narrowly missing out on the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma State (20-12) has reeled off four consecutive postseason victories to reach the semifinals of the Women's NIT for the first time. The Cowgirls will host San Diego (26-8) on Wednesday night, with the winner moving on to the championship game on Saturday against either James Madison or Syracuse.
|REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY|
|Two Okla. St. coaches killed in crash|
|Budke and Serna|
It means a lot. I think it hasn't hit us how much we've accomplished this year and how much success we're having right now," point guard Tiffany Bias said, seventh in the nation with 6.6 assists per game
"I think that at the end of it all, if we could go all the way and win it all, it would mean a lot and it would honor a lot of people."
Budke and Serna died on Nov. 17 -- along with pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula Branstetter -- when their plane crashed while on a recruiting trip to Little Rock. Associate head coach Jim Littell was promoted to replace Budke on an interim basis, two games were canceled while memorial services were being held and the team emerged from the tragedy to go undefeated in nonconference play.
It was the second plane crash to affect Oklahoma State basketball in about a decade. In 2001, 10 men affiliated with the men's team died when a team plane crashed on the way back from a game in Colorado.
"We're definitely a family. We've grown real close," freshman Liz Donohoe said, who has 45 points in the Cowgirls' last two wins.
"We're family. We fight, we make up. We're best friends. We have each other's backs."
With two more wins, they could hang a WNIT championship banner up in the rafters -- where there's a banner honoring the four people who were lost.
"I know we've got good kids here, and they've handled things very well this year, been very resilient and the chemistry on this team has been very good," Littell said. "Not really surprised that they've hung in there."
Oklahoma State went 8-10 in Big 12 play, same record as two other teams that made the NCAA tournament -- Texas and Kansas. The Cowgirls were likely left off of the bracket after a loss to last-place Missouri, which they had beaten in the final regular-season game, in the opening round of the conference tournament. The loss dropped their RPI from 52 to 69.
They watched the selection show but Donohoe admitted they only felt they had a "slight chance" of getting into the NCAA tournament.
"We told our players that we've got a choice to hang our heads and feel sorry for ourselves or we can approach it that we can show people we should have been in the tournament. We can show people that we should have been maybe considered a little harder for that," Littell said.
"But we didn't win when we needed to, to be honest about it. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we said, 'Let's use this WNIT to get better."'
That's exactly what has happened. The Cowgirls have won four in a row, out-rebounding each of their opponents and holding a scoring advantage in the paint in every game. They've also deployed a stingy defense that has held opponents to 29 percent shooting in the second half.
"I think that we're very driven," Bias said. "We're just playing for a lot of reasons, and I think that shows out there."
With more than 30 games under their belts, Littell -- who was given a four-year contract to remain head coach earlier this year -- has found himself calling less offensive sets for his team and allowing the players more freedom to execute on their own. When the transition opportunities and easy offense stop coming, he'll still step in and call out a designed play.
"I think we're not being such robots and actually just going out there and playing basketball. It helps us just relax and just play," Bias said.
Littell hopes that's a sign of growth for a team that starts two freshmen, doesn't have a senior and is already talking about getting to the NCAA tournament next year.
"There's just a lot to play for. It's a fun time of year," Littell said. "Would we have loved to be in the NCAA tournament? Absolutely, no question. But this is what we've been dealt and we're going to continue to play.
"When you've got players that love the game -- whether it be WNIT or NCAA -- every time you step on the court, it's an important game for them."