The Tulsa Shock's 84-75 win over the Seattle Storm on Tuesday brought out some strong emotion, and deservedly so - perhaps even more so than one might imagine.
On the court, Kiesha Brown danced as she threw down a 30-footer at the end of the half to put the Shock up seven. Scholanda Robinson fist pumped as she backpeddled after notching a few of her career-high 21 points. Ivory Latta and the rest of the team took to center court to celebrate after the final buzzer saw Tulsa reign victorious over Seattle for just their fifth win of the season.
The locker room was much of the same, abuzz with sighs of relief and excited, almost giddy, chatter as the team talked with mile-wide smiles pasted on their faces. Newcomers and locker neighbors Rashanda McCants and Nicole Ohlde were sharing in their first taste of Tulsa victory since joining the team, even getting congratulatory handshakes from Shock President Steve Swetoha.
"Man, just so excited. A little bit of relief, but it just feels really good," said Robinson on her post-game emotions. "We put a great game together from beginning to end and it's just validation. We beat the best team in our league and it just shows what a great team we are. When we come to play and we play our game for 40 minutes we can beat anybody."
Ivory Latta also echoed words of relief, excitement and optimism after the win.
"It felt good to play all four quarters. Coach told us - he's been telling us that all season, 'if you play four quarters then you'll win a game,' and that's what we did," Latta said with a chuckle. "Absolutely, we've been pumped up. This is the number one team in the WNBA so to get a great win against them is great. They've got Olympians on their team, they've got great players so for us to get a win in front of our home crowd and for Coach, it's great."
A win for Coach.
Words that many players use after landing on the high side of a contest's points battle. But on Tuesday there was more behind those words. Something personal, something more important than just wins and losses.
After the game Nolan Richardson shared a story with his players that for many might just be reserved for family, but this team is growing into an arm of his extended family. August 3rd is not just some hot summer day in the mind of the Tulsa head coach, but rather a day of reflection and memorial for Yvonne Richardson.
"It was an emotional game for me simply because as I told my girls - not before the game, but after the game - that I really appreciate because it was something wonderful for me to be coaching the women and have lost a daughter that loved the game so much 23 years ago."
A story that many might not associate with the on-court winning of Nolan Richardson is the off-court struggle of loss he and his family had to face just when his coaching career was taking off to new heights. Yvonne had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and was being treated for the deadly disease in Tulsa just as Arkansas came knocking at his door to lure him to the SEC and lead the Razorbacks to an eventual national championship.
Yvonne played a major role in Nolan accepting the job, insisting that he make the move to Fayetteville. Those first two years directing Arkansas were rough on the court, but even rougher behind the scenes. The disappointment of a 31-30 basketball team after two seasons paled in comparison to the personal devastation that must have filled the halls of the Richardson household over that same stretch of time.
15 year-old Yvonne lost her battle with cancer just two years after it began.
"I'm a stronger person today - strictly because of her," Richardson told Sports Illustrated some time ago. "But I'm human. Sometimes I ask God, 'Why?' On the other hand, whenever I catch [my wife] Rose saying that, I say, 'Come on, we have to accept it. God just chose to pick from our garden.'"
And Yvonne's garden continues to bloom through the Yvonne Richardson Memorial Foundation, with over 1.4 million dollars going towards charitable organizations benefiting children in a variety of ways - a living memory of an all too short life belonging to the daughter Nolan Richardson.
So on Tuesday, when friends and family in the Richardson clan gathered together in El Paso to remember the budding flower that was pruned too early to take a place in God's garden, Richardson was on the sidelines, willing his his team to an improbable win - perhaps with a little help from above.
"To me that was something," Richardson paused with a hitch in his voice and a glistening eye, "me and the wife will always cherish this win."
A win for the Shock, a win for Coach, and a win for Yvonne.