By Clay Horning
CNHI News Service
OKLAHOMA CITY – With about a minute to play, there was a great picture to be taken on the Sooner bench. Everybody was seated. Everybody but Whitney Hand.
In front of her, the Oklahoma women were beaten but not defeated. They were down by double-digits, like they’d been since the middle of the first half when, unable to make a shot, any shot, the game got far away enough from them Tennessee could see Tuesday night back on the same court pretty clearly.
Hand stood, taking it all in. Then, sitting down, having taken it in, it was like it washed over her. Occasionally, you could see her continuing to watch the game. Mostly, though, her hands covered much of her face.
This was it.
“We had a chance,” she said afterward. “We had a few key stops and if we’d made a few buckets it would have been different.”
That was the first few minutes of the second half and she was right. It would been different.
Maybe the Sooners don’t silence Rocky Top, but they would have given the Lady Vols something to think about.
If Nicole Griffin could have hit a layup and catch the ball amidst Tennessee’s pressure … If Aaryn Ellenberg could have hit anything the first two-thirds of the game … If Morgan Hook wouldn’t have taken a knee to the noggin.
Yes, it would have been different.
It wasn’t though.
The Sooner effort was as valiant as it was futile, which is to say plenty in both directions. So there Hand stood, taking it all in, the moment and much of the last five years of her life.
“It’s a really weird feeling. It doesn’t really feel real at this point,” she said. “Those final seconds I was just listening to the crowd and thinking this is it, this is it, this is the last time we’ll get to sing the fight song, this is the last time I’ll get to say, ‘Good game,” to a group of girls.
“It’s tough, but I think what I’m most upset about is just ending this year and just ending this journey with the girls.”
Hand probably didn’t realize it, but what she was really saying was that it would be tough to leave a group that lived up to her very own legacy.
She tore both of her ACLs during her time in the crimson and cream, losing her first sophomore season, much of her second and most of her senior season. She married Landry Jones but her athletic history has more in common with Jason White, everything but a sixth year in uniform.
The effort she offered amidst it all was awe-inspiring. The good humor with which she accepted it all – at least what she let be seen, because the raw competitiveness that’s also a part of her must have made for some at lest some unseen rage – was an example for observers far beyond coach Sherri Coale’s basketball program.
One way or another, though Hand would probably disagree, Hand always offered her best.
It rubbed off.
After she went down, it was like the effort she’d always played with had been handed to Joanna McFarland, who had another big game, finishing with 14 points and 16 rebounds against the Lady Vols.
Some of it was picked up, too, by Ellenberg, whose defense was almost as important as her offense against UCLA, the game that brought the Sooners back to Oklahoma City.
Her leadership rubbed off on Hook, running the point, and her accountability rubbed off on Griffin, who wasn’t very good Sunday, but whose game has still come a very long way.
It’s kind of perfect.
In Hand’s absence from the court, her team found a game that honored her example, one she never stopped leading it toward, one that should do plenty for it going forward when she’s no longer around but certain to still be watching.
“She’s a warrior,” freshman guard Nicole Kornet said. “We all look up to her.”
In the end, she stood and watched.
It couldn’t have been easy. And still, but for it all coming to an end, Whitney Hand had to like what she saw.
Clay Horning is the sports editor of the Norman Transcript.