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Oklahoma Women Entering Tough Three-Game Stretch

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Picked as the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 conference, the Oklahoma women's basketball team had high expectations for the season. The Sooners' current record of 15-9 has left the Sooners wondering what exactly has gone wrong and how they can right the ship before it's too late.

The Sooners are not accustomed to sweating out a selection to the NCAA tournament, but that's the position they're in right now, as they enter a crucial stretch of three games against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas.

Win two or all of those, and the pressures of missing the NCAA tournament should vanish. However, win just one or none of them, and it's time to panic.

"We're treating every game like it's the Super Bowl," senior point guard Morgan Hook said. "We can't afford to lose in this month so I think we have to play every game like it's our last game."

While the Sooners know the next three games in particular are huge for the team's tournament chances, OU coach Sherri Coale knows the Big 12 conference never offers a night off in league play.

"We have seven remaining and I think they're all big," Coale said. "I think we have to march through it methodically, one opponent at a time. We've been really, really good all year long when we've been convicted about a game plan. When we're really committed to this is how we're going to play this game, we've had fantastic results.

"I think it's really way more about us than who we're playing."

However, if the Sooners can't manage to focus on each single opponent in turn, winning any of the next three games would prove to be much more difficult.

"The next one doesn't matter if you don't take care of the first one," senior Aaryn Ellenberg said. "It's really just in-that-moment type of mindset.

It all starts for the Sooners Thursday night against No. 13 West Virginia. The Mountaineers have been a thorn in the side of Oklahoma since they came into the conference a year ago. While the two teams have split the four meetings so far, the Sooners got blown out twice in Morgantown, took their first lead with just five minutes remaining in Norman last year, and overcame a huge second-half deficit in the Big 12 tournament.

"They just play really physically," Coale said. "They're very athletic and they get out and attack you and if you don't have great poise with the basketball then it turns into their kind of tempo game.

"It's not a great matchup for us mano a mano. If we play them unit against unit, we have really good results. When we try to play them mano a mano, it doesn't work out so well."

The Mountaineers like to pressure and they love to push the tempo. It's not something the Sooners enjoy doing and staying composed in the midst of all that will be a challenge.

"It's hard because they're all up in your face and stuff but once you break that first wave, you relax and can play your game and not really think about it," Hook said. "It's really just that first wave of extreme pressure that you have to get over and then it will come to you."

But how did the Sooners even come to be in this position in the first place? Despite a roster full of talent and experience, Oklahoma just hasn't been able to put things together this year.

"This year has been chock full of its own unique challenges," Coale said with a laugh. "Let me just say it that way."

The Sooners haven't had the chemistry and cohesiveness that typically defines a Coale-coached team. Off the court, the players are all close friends, but that camaraderie hasn't carried over to the court.

"To play this game effectively, you have to play at the right speed, and that's physical speed and mental speed," Coale said. "If there is a great Achilles heel, it's that mental speed. We're either too sped up or too locked down. That's an individual thing that can be contagious. If one guy is playing at the wrong speed, it can sort of disrupt the rhythm of everything."

Despite the problems for the Sooners this season, there has been improvement. The Sooners have won two of their past three and four of their last six games, two of those over ranked opponents. The pieces haven't come together yet for the Sooners, but Coale sees plenty of room for optimism.

"I do see lots of little pockets of improvement," Coale said, "and I think if we string that together and win a couple of games in a row—momentum is such a big thing this time of year—if we can get a little momentum going, I think we could still become a very good basketball team. We just have to string a couple together."

Oklahoma hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since 1999 and even though they still have work to do, the Sooners don't intend on breaking that streak any time soon.

"I can't imagine not going to the NCAA tournament my senior year," Hook said. "We're still a great team and it's frustrating we have so many losses with as much talent as we have. Knowing we do have the talent and that when we do get a shot in the tournament, we can still make a run whether we get a lower seed or a higher seed."

One week, three games. That short amount of time can go a long way toward determining the direction the rest of the season goes for the Sooners.

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