NORMAN (AP) — Standing before a crowd of more than 12,000 people after Oklahoma’s senior night game, Nyeshia Stevenson looked comfortable and sounded polished as she spoke, all while coach Sherri Coale marveled at the guard’s transformation.
Stevenson was “the most comfortable kid in the world, making eye contact with people in the arena, speaking clearly and articulately, making sense, having a direction,” Coale said. “She’s a kid that when she came in here, looked at the floor when she talked to you. She’s a great story.”
Besides the self-confidence, Stevenson has developed on the basketball court and become a key reason Oklahoma (27-10) reached the Final Four for the second straight year. The Sooners will play Stanford (35-1) on Sunday in a national semifinal in San Antonio.
“It was (over) four years,” Stevenson said of her transformation. “I’ve gotten older and I’ve matured. ... Playing under coach Coale, she does things that develops you into a woman. Everyone is not the same. It’s going to be tougher for some and easier for some.”
The 5-foot-10 Stevenson was a three-sport star at McClellan High School in Little Rock, Ark. She was a top sprinter and won state titles in the long jump, high jump and triple jump as a junior and had opportunities to play college volleyball. She was named the most valuable player in a state All-Star basketball game after her senior season.
Yet she admittedly was a raw basketball talent at that point. Coale said Stevenson had relied more on her athletic ability to succeed than on her knowledge of the game. The coach thought Stevenson had tons of potential and speed to burn, enough reason to offer her a scholarship.
“We knew we had to get more speed on our roster and she was a beautiful raw athlete, the epitome of that,” Coale said. “You could just tell her hunger to come here and be part of this thing was off the charts.”
Off the court, Coale and Stevenson’s teammates say she’s made steady progression as a student — the film and video studies major is quite comfortable in front of cameras — and as a person. Stevenson sings, dances, knits and rides a skateboard. She’s learning how to play guitar and has studied the language of the Choctaw Indians.
“You learn. You interact with different people,” fellow senior Amanda Thompson said of Stevenson. “You go all over the world. You just grow. I remember, she barely used to talk. You can’t get her to stop now!
“She’s just a whole different person.”
On the court, the progression also shows. Stevenson played in 24 games as a freshman and became the Sooners’ sixth man as a sophomore. She continued in that role as a junior, although she did start nine games when Thompson and Whitney Hand were injured.
Stevenson seamlessly moved into the Sooners’ starting lineup this season and became the team’s top 3-point threat after Hand suffered a season-ending injury after only five games.
Entering the Final Four, Stevenson is averaging 14.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting 42.4 percent from the field, including 33.3 percent from 3-point range.
She’s had her star moments for the Sooners. On Dec. 9, she scored a career-high 32 points and tied a school record with nine 3-pointers in an 80-71 overtime win at Marist. Her 3 with 16 seconds left in regulation tied the game and she hit two more from behind the arc in the extra period.
But it was in the Kansas City Regional where she made her biggest mark. She scored 21 points in a 77-72 overtime win over Notre Dame, including the game-winning 3 with 4.4 seconds left. Two nights later, she poured in 31 points and used her speed to record five steals in an 88-68 win over Kentucky. Stevenson was named the regional’s most valuable player.
“She has turned herself into a very smart basketball player,” Coale said. “She understands. I can draw something up in a 30-second time-out and she can take it and apply it on the floor immediately, and there are some really sharp kids who are really talented that never figure out how to do that in four years of college basketball.”
In the process, Stevenson has turned herself into a WNBA draft prospect and she said she hopes to continue playing basketball after leaving Oklahoma.
That’s not what makes Coale the proudest.
“The process of her becoming, as I refer to it, is one of the reasons you coach,” she said. “There’s not a facet of her development that has not progressed. It’s interpersonal, it’s self-control, it’s skill development, it’s personal discipline, it’s academic performance, public speaking. You name it. She has improved in all areas.”