Nike rewarded some of its championship-caliber men's and women's basketball teams with Hyper Elite Platinum uniforms this season. The Baylor and Connecticut women were one of nine teams privy to the new threads. Each team's championship seasons were highlighted with a star emblazoned with the winning season on the back. The Duke men's uniform was graced with three stars, North Carolina's with five. The Kentucky men and UConn women had a top-mark of seven stars festooning the area above the numbers, while the Syracuse and Arizona men and the Baylor women sported a solo star.
Each of the nine teams that received the new unis was an NCAA Division I squad. One Nike school slated in a different division would have been a prime candidate for platinum gear with a brilliant blue accent - the Oklahoma City University Stars women. And the star count for the Stars would stand at five - at least for now.
The top-ranked squad from OCU is gearing up to increase their star count this week in Frankfort, Kentucky, where the NAIA Division I National Tournament is being held this season. OCU's championship seasons, including a remarkable run of four-straight titles, were won in 1988, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. Their success led them to the finals in runner-up finishes in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Now in 2012, the team is primed to notch another title season in the books.
Their quest for the top spot in the NAIA began yesterday morning, where the Stars trounced their first-round opponent 91-73. You'd think that was quite a large margin until you look at their numbers this season. Six one hundred plus-point games. A nation-leading 33.61 point average margin of victory. A scoring offense that averages 85.13 points while shooting 46.5 percent from the field each night. A truly well-rounded team with four players that average double-digit scoring. In fact, all 10 ladies get at least three points and two rebounds a night, no one plays more than 28 minutes and no one sees the court for less than 10 minutes a game.
They're no slouch in other teamwork categories either - fourth in the nation in assists (17.39) and fifth in steals (14.23). They force10.68 more turnovers a game than they commit. The way you can tell the top team is not top heavy, though, is what you don't see when you look at the individual leaders in the nation. Only one player will pop up on the Top 5 lists; senior transfer Dietra Caldwell has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.54 to crack into the individual discussions. A true team laces them up for the Stars.
Last season when I got to know this team on a one-on-one level, I thought pretty much the same thing; OCU was ready to survive the rigors of the national tournament and get that sixth star. Upstart in the NAIA, Shawnee State, didn't get that memo and the Stars were ousted in the tournament quarterfinals.
The Stars shot 13 percent in the first half and played without their senior WBCA All-American. The Stars trailed by double-digits for much of the game, but despite the deficit, were able to cut it to a one possession affair with 14.2 seconds to play. Even with the first half mishaps they still had a chance - and that's something that didn't go unnoticed by Edmisson.
"We shot bad, got our gobbers down, Donica (Cosby) didn't play and we were still down two with a minute to go at the free throw line, had a chance to win," Edmisson said. "Every team, every year has a different makeup character-wise and this is a tough team. They're a very resilient team."
Last year, Edmisson used to honestly say that intersquad practice was oftentimes tougher than in-game situations for the Stars. This season, he has mixed it up and is doing something that has often been seen and documented in the NCAA and WNBA - using male practice players.
A group of guys that includes former varsity players for the Stars comes in the gym three times a week to challenge the women, something that this team thrives on.
"If I was say what intangible this team might have more than maybe some of our other teams in the past, is this bunch truly enjoys competition," Edmisson said before after the last season before heading to Frankfort. "They would rather play in a game where someone might be able to get them behind and push us and test us than have it be comfortable and just know we're going to win easily. This bunch thrives on competition."
As noted above, they don't get much of that in-game competition on the regular, so playing with the guys is the on-court test that keeps the team focused and teachable.
"It's hugely different," Edmisson said of the addition of males into the team's gym time. "I would be interested to know if anybody at our level has the kind of competition in a practice when we put those kids in with these guys. Other than plays that are above our head because of athleticism, I think our kids compete really well. The guys will tell you it's not an easy day when they come in here and play against our kids. They have to work hard to guard our kids. They have to work hard to chase our kids around and our kids play - it's been a huge factor in our success this year."
Junior Desiree Jeffries, a transfer from Oklahoma State in her second season with the Stars, thinks the additional level of athleticism and aggressiveness propels the women to succeed.
"The boys, they just make us work. We can play against girls. That's not a question," Jeffries explained. "But the boys just make us play to that next level, so when we play against boys and then we go play against girls it just helps us. We just have that extra quickness, that extra step, that extra want to when we go play against girls. That's what the boys give us."
OCU has only lost one regular season game this year, at home to conference foe and 12th ranked Lubbock Christian. In that contest OCU let an eight-point halftime deficit balloon to a 22-point loss. The Stars avenged their poor performance with a road win one month later, but the taste of the defeat is still present.
"That was probably one of our worst games ever, just all around," Jeffries said with a tone of regret. "Not only because we couldn't hit shots, we weren't defending how we know we can defend. We were getting beat back side, back door, getting beat off drives. It was just everything that could have went wrong, went wrong in the game. But ever since then we've just been building back up, building back up to how we play."
Edmisson attributes it to just one of those games - almost unexplainable, but always present in someone's schedule each year.
"Because I know our kids are so competitive, I don't think that it was a situation that we overlooked them or anything. I just think it was one of those nights, and it happens in college basketball everywhere," Edmisson said. "Kentucky men go into Indiana and get beat. Connecticut women get beat by St. John's. In a season this long, there's just those nights where nothing goes right.
"We didn't shoot it well. We didn't guard well. We didn't handle adversity well and it was just that night. But if anything, obviously it refocused us and let us know, humbled us to know that on any given night we can be beat. We're not that immortal."
The Stars might recognize that they are indeed beatable, but that doesn't mean that they plan to fall again anytime soon. Or at least Jeffries isn't expecting to lose again this year.
"No. Honestly. If you just look back at our (conference) championship game against Southern Nazarene, we didn't play that well," Jeffries explained. "We didn't shoot very good, but we played defense and that's what will get us there. If we play defense, we'll be fine. I don't think anybody can beat us. No really, for a team to beat us - we probably have to play really bad. Like shoot 13% like we did last year. We have to shoot bad, and they have to shoot amazingly great."
In a moment of reflection on what it will take to unseat this year's No. 1 team, Edmisson also pulled last year's tournament tumble from his memory banks.
"I think to beat us you're going to have to catch us on a night where we can't shoot it, we get in foul trouble, maybe two or three key kids get in foul trouble, and another team absolutely shoots lights out. And then it will still be close," he said with a smile.
Jeffries said the team set some goals to start the season - win the regular season conference crown - which they shared with Lubbock Christian, win the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament - which they did, and win the national tournament - which they are one step closer to doing.
"This is our year," Jeffries said simply. "We just have a maturity about us that other teams don't have. We don't have any freshmen. Our team - every one of my teammates - we just love basketball. We love coming in the gym. This is what we do.
"Even when we do drills in practice, we want to win. We don't like losing. We get mad - I know I get mad when we lose a drill or the boys beat us. We love competition. We just have that fight in us that I don't think we had last year, not quite. This whole team - we hate, we hate losing. That's one thing I can say, we hate losing."
I think - really - they hate the idea of losing because they've only had the actual taste of losing but once this year.
And it doesn't look like their second mouthful is coming in the immediate future.
OCU's second round game is Friday at 10: 45 a.m. ET, against fourth-seeded Westminster (Utah).