NORMAN — Sherri Coale sat on the patio outside the Oklahoma women’s basketball offices recently, the March sunlight reflecting off her aviator sunglasses and into a lunch she had ample time to enjoy.
But this was March. And she didn’t want time.
For the first time in two decades, Coale’s Sooners weren’t in the NCAA Tournament field. Spare time is a cruel luxury for basketball coaches this time of year. OU had a young roster that had been stripped down by transfers and injuries. It finished 8-22 and won just four Big 12 conference games. It didn’t have much chance at the NIT, let alone the NCAAs.
Coale accepted responsibility for it.
“All I can really speak to is me,” she told The Norman Transcript, when asked if she understands why some people might feel OU’s program has slipped. “And I’m not happy with where our program is. I take complete ownership for where our program is, and we have slipped, because we’re not in the top three in the Big 12 conference and we’re not in the NCAA Tournament this year.
“And our goal is to not be in the top three. It’s to win it. It’s not to be in the tournament, it’s to be in the tournament and win games and advance to the Final Four. Once you’ve done that … That’s it. That’s the goal, to win and to win big.”
It has been 10 seasons since OU won big. In 2008-09, it won the Big 12 regular-season championship and made the first of back-to-back Final Four runs.
The Sooners’ last Sweet 16 appearance was six seasons ago; OU won as many games that year as it’s won the past two combined. The program’s NCAA runner-up finish is about to turn 17 years old.
Sunday, top-ranked Baylor won its second national championship in eight seasons. The Bears have supplanted OU as the Big 12’s dominant force, and the Sooners’ worst finish since 1997-98 did nothing to ease the pain.
Coale brought the program out of serious decay after being hired in 1996. Six years earlier, the university had dropped women’s basketball as a sport completely. It was a decision met with national ire, and one Coale eventually proved without a doubt to be wrong, once she began piecing together high-powered rosters and bringing fans in to watch them.
But what’s past is past.
OU’s eight wins in 2018-19 match the number Coale won in her second season. Sophomore guard and former Big 12 freshman of the year Shaina Pellington, who once appeared to be a foundational piece, transferred last month; longtime assistant coaches Pam DeCosta and Chad Thrailkill both left the program a day later.
Coale certainly appears to be facing her second rebuild in Norman.
To understand OU’s current plight, it’s important to know how Chelsea Dungee and Nancy Mulkey are doing.
Dungee averaged 20.5 points for Arkansas this past season. Nancy Mulkey, at 6 feet, 9 inches, averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds for Rice. Both would have been juniors at OU this season had they not transferred after their freshman year. Morgan Rich, a top-50 prospect in high school, would have been a junior too had she not given up basketball due to injuries.
Departures over the past two years hit the Sooners heavily, and they were never evened out by the the addition of an experienced transfer, namely one with size. OU was left with a young, undersized roster that could only hope to outrace and outshoot opponents last season. At one point, four freshmen and a sophomore started, none of them taller than 6 foot.
OU’s future could be impacted greatly with more size. The Sooners return the majority of their scoring and rebounding and won’t graduate any of it even after next season. Coale wants to attract an experienced post player from the transfer market but isn’t stamping a promise on that.
“We’re looking under every rock,” Coale said. “Everywhere in the country, out of the country, everywhere. But I can’t emphasize this enough, that we need size, but we need the right length and the right size — in other words, we’re going to do it right. And if that means we’re good tomorrow, great. If we can’t find what we need for tomorrow, then we’ll find it for the next day and we’ll get there.”
So, immediate help may or may not be on the way. Coale still swears her team is close to turning a corner and says she’s been even more convinced lately watching the NCAA Tournament. She’ll open a computer screen with the television on and compare the Sooners’ analytics to others.
OU ranked third in Big 12 scoring (72 points per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage (42.3 percent). But it was last in other critical categories: scoring defense (79.0 ppg), field-goal percentage defensive (.430) and turnover margin (-4.0). It was third-to-last in free-throw percentage (.667).
The Sooners’ defensive numbers may have been skewed by their high-volume turnovers per game. Giveaways in “the channel,” as Coale and her staff refer to it, result in immediate points, to which no defense can prevent.
Bright spots returning include sophomore guard Ana Llanusa, who, with scarce help around her, led the team in scoring after missing 10 games due to foot surgery. Taylor Robertson set the freshman record for 3-pointers (225), and freshman Madi Williams averaged 11.6 points and 8 rebounds.
They won’t have Pellington’s help moving forward. Coale said both she and the guard from Canada both admitted they learned something, as they mutually parted ways after the season.
But next year’s Sooners will be older.
There will also be incoming freshmen Liz Scott, a 6-foot-2 forward ranked as the nation’s No. 9 overall player, according to Prospects Nation. Another high-scoring guard is on the way in Holland Hall (Tulsa) product Gabby Gregory, a top-100 prospect according to ESPN.
They’ll all have a pair of new assistant coaches, too.
On March 12, longtime assistants Pam DeCosta and Chad Thrailkill left the program to pursue other ventures beyond basketball, a release stated. DeCosta had been in charge of recruiting, while Thrailkill — who’d been with Coale since her days coaching Norman High — specialized in defense.
Coale said she wasn’t surprised by their decisions, adding, “when it’s time, it’s time.” It was a coincidence, she believes, that both left simultaneously. But Coale seemed genuinely excited for the future.
Unlike her task in 1996, new facilities are in place to draw recruits, and there’s still OU’s history in Coale’s tenure: three Final Fours, nine Sweet Sixteens, six conference titles, a 31-19 record in the NCAAs. She believes that continues to resonate with prospects.
Do those players see Coale’s program as one in decline? Some long-time supporters of the program do, and that doesn’t bother her.
“You know, I don’t ever look at things that way,” Coale said. “I think however anybody wants to view anything is their right. It’s a free country. You can take that stance if you want.”
There’s still hope within OU’s locker room, even after the season ended with a 104-84 loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament, when the Red Raiders set a tournament record for points scored in a single game and put up the second-most points against the Sooners that season.
Madi Williams sat at a podium in Chesapeake Energy Arena after that game and made a bold statement. “This year was a great way for us to see our potential,” she said. “And before we leave, we’re going to win a national championship. I think we’re all looking forward to that.”
Coale hasn’t forgotten that quote.
“I mean, I loved it,” Coale said. “It wasn’t canned … She had competed so hard in that game that the filter was off. And I love that, because therein lies the seed of what’s possible.”
Coale says she feels as much energy as she did when she first got the OU job, back when she unspooled butcher paper across her living room floor and scribbled job descriptions and recruiting goals into it with a pen.
She still wakes up in the middle of the night and jots down ideas — an old habit — and still has faith that her players will be mentioned among the nation’s elite again.
“I’m not tired,” Coale said. “I would hope that my passion has not waned at all through time. Right now, I feel as invigorated as I ever did.
“It’s an exciting time because the future’s bright, and these kids that made it through a really tough year. You’re going to be writing stories about them in a couple of years as their careers go full circle, because they’re going to be the guys that brought it back.”
Past 10 years of Oklahoma women’s basketball
Sooners since 2009-10
• 2009-10: 27-11, 11-5 Big 12 (t-2nd); NCAA Final Four
• 2010-11: 23-12, 10-6 Big 12 (t-3rd); NCAA Sweet 16
• 2011-12: 21-13, 11-7 Big 12 (t-2nd); NCAA 2nd round
• 2012-13: 24-11, 11-7 Big 12 (t-2nd); NCAA Sweet 16
• 2013-14: 18-15, 9-9 Big 12 (t-5th); NCAA 1st round
• 2014-15: 21-12, 13-5 Big 12 (2nd); NCAA 2nd round
• 2015-16: 22-11, 11-7 Big 12 (t-4th); NCAA 2nd round
• 2016-17: 23-10, 13-5 Big 12 (3rd); NCAA 2nd round
• 2017-18: 16-15, 11-7 Big 12 (t-3rd); NCAA 1st round
• 2018-19: 8-21, 4-14 Big 12 (t-8th); --