NORMAN, Okla. — It was an inflatable, rubber workout ball not much different than those found in local gyms across the country.
It was just a ball. But for Ana Llanusa, it was like a ball and chain.
Sitting up in a chair was bad for her ailing back, which kept her out of six games during the month of January for Oklahoma. So the junior guard was forced to lie flat on the workout ball more often than she’d like.
That meant doing so on the sidelines at practice and during games.
“I’d have to take it everywhere, [even] class,” Llanusa said. “I’m glad I don't have to do that anymore. It was a pain.”
Llanusa’s return to the OU lineup has been the most encouraging development over the past month for the Sooners, who host Oklahoma State on Tuesday.
“I think this is a breath of relief for all of us,” said forward Madi Williams, after Llanusa scored 19 points in a win over West Virginia last week. “Just knowing what she can do and what she's capable of, it brings another piece to the table that we missed.”
To West Virginia coach Mike Carey, her importance to OU is simple.
“She gives them another scorer,” Carey said. “They play well together. She gives them another ball handler, another passer and she can shoot the 3.”
But Llanusa also provides an additional perimeter defender. OU beat West Virginia despite poor shooting, something the Sooners have rarely overcome this season.
OU coach Sherri Coale doesn’t talk with her team about the looming goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. But she agreed that winning despite poor offense was a step in the direction she wants them to go.
“I think it is. Good teams have lots of ways that they can win,” Coale said. “When things didn't go exactly to plan, it didn't knock them sideways. And that's growth. That doesn't mean we're not going to have a misstep and slip again. But we are making progress.”
The Bedlam game against OSU in Stillwater on Jan. 8 — when OU roared back to win with a 16-1 run in the final 2:56 — kickstarted a three-game win streak.
Another surge this time could boost OU’s postseason resume.
The Sooners are listed in the bottom half of the first eight teams expected to miss the NCAA field, according to ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme. OU (12-10, 5-5 Big 12) hosts Oklahoma State and Kansas State this week before finishing the regular season at Baylor, vs. Kansas, at Texas, at TCU and vs. Texas Tech.
Llanusa’s return hasn’t been a cure-all. OU trailed by as many as 15 points in a 63-59 loss last week at Iowa State, with Llanusa and Williams both fouling out.
Coale reminds people Llanusa is still trying to regain full health.
But her presence figures to help the Sooners in the month of February.
“Obviously it just gives us such a different dimension,” Coale said. “Her speed, her ability to make plays with the ball in her hand, and then the defensive pressure that she can apply on the perimeter against a volatile scorer. That's huge.”
Time/Place: 7 p.m. Tuesday | Lloyd Noble Center
Records/Rankings: OU (12-10, 5-5 Big 12); OSU (13-8, 5-5)
OU projected starters: G 22 Ana Llanusa (6-0, Jr./16.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); 25 G/F Madi Williams (6-0, So./15 ppg, 7.5 rpg); 30 G Taylor Robertson (5-7, So./20.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg); 12 G Gabby Gregory (6-0, Fr./9.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); F Mandy Simpson (6-1, Jr./5.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
OSU projected starters: G 23 Lauren Fields (Fr., 5-9/4.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg); F 4 Natasha Mack (Jr., 6-4/17.7 ppg, 12.1 rpg); F 12 Vivian Gray (Jr., 6-1/19.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg); G 21 Ja’Mee Asberry (So., 5-5/8.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G 33 Clitan de Sousa (Sr., 6-0/5.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Series: OU leads 63-43
Radio: KREF 99.3 FM; 1400 AM