NORMAN, Okla. - The seniors started off the night hot, with Carlee Roethlisberger putting the Sooners on the board with a rainbow three 10 seconds into the action.
OU upperclassman Danielle Robinson hit the next two Sooner baskets. And then a freshman took over the first half. The seniors passed the proverbial torch to Aaryn Ellenberg to toss in the rainbow shots from beyond the arc. She drained three in the first half and led all game scorers with 13 at the break and 23 for the game.
But the seniors weren't quite ready to give up the reins just yet. The second half started with free throws from the almost-automatic D Rob. She got the crowd to her feet after a layup on the break made the score 51-38 in favor of OU. Her red locks bouncing up and down with every assist she tallied, every rebound she pulled down every steal she made her own.
Senior Lauren Willis checked in and got herself a pair of treys midway through the second half. Willis, averaging 2.4 points a game, bumped herself over her average with her first made basket. The crowd erupting in cheers as she let them fly, rewarding her for her service to the Sooners with a rousing applause.
Roethlisberger put one up and in with 3:10 to stretch the lead to 77-59. She followed it up with a successful and-1 with 2:05 to make it 80-59. The crowd gasped as she fell to the floor with 1:30 holding her knee and getting subbed out. Then the mass of crimson-clad stood up to give her a standing ovation as she checked out of the game for her very last time on her home court. Welcomed to the bench to a round of hugs, her smile was ear to ear.
At 1:19 to play, Danielle got the same treatment. Another ovation, another set of hugs down the line of the bench.With 21 seconds the chants of O-U filled the air and Whitney Hand dribbled out the clock. The game was over and the Sooners prevailed over their in-state rivals 81-66.
"I'm happy with our leadership tonight, especially the fact that Lauren Willis got in and hit the deep 3 of the night and did a great job of what she does which is get up, shoot 3's and make them," OU coach Sherri Coale said. "I thought Carlee got us started early and Danielle really controlled the tempo of the game. Just a really great night for all three of the seniors."
Robinson ended with 13 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals. Roethlisberger tallied 14 points, seven rebounds and a pair of blocks. Willis was a perfect 2-for-2 with her six points.
Even though the game was over, the reason the 7,401 fans were still in their seats was the show they really came to see - the senior night festivities.
Hugging, crying and smiling with crimson and cream balloons strewn about the hardwood floor adorned with three framed jerseys. Tearful exchanges between coach and player, parents and daughter, between teammates nearly took the same amount of time as it did to play the game. And every senior - no matter their name or their stat line - deserved a sendoff like these seniors had, topped off by eloquent words from their head coach about just how they arrived to Norman and what they've brought to the team.
Words from Sherri Coale on which this trio can hold steadfast.
On Lauren Willis -
This is a kid who wanted desperately to play for the University of Oklahoma, she wanted to be a part of this institution, she wanted to be a part of this program and she was willing to do that in any way that she could. She was a great, great high school basketball player and there are a lot of great, great high school basketball players who won't go somewhere and walk on. They want a full scholarship, that's the only way they want to play.
Lauren Willis has bigger dreams.
It was OK for her to come here and walk on for a while because she wanted to be a part of something that was really special. So she came here, and she walked on, she came to practice every single day and worked just as hard as everybody else in the gym. And after a little while, I made the decision that we weren't Oklahoma without Lauren Willis, so we put her on a full scholarship.
What she has done is something that you don't see a lot these days. She's been incredibly selfless. She comes to practice every day and competes from start to finish typically with a smile on her face from start to finish. They can attest to it. Doesn't matter if we ask her to play defense all day. Doesn't matter if we ask her to be on scout team all day. Doesn't matter what we ask her to do. She accepts the responsibility and does whatever we ask of her as well as she can possibly do it. There aren't a lot of players out there who have that type of selflessness. Because whatever we ask Lauren to do for the University of Oklahoma she did. And she did it as well as she could possibly do it.
She's affected us in all kinds of intangible with her spirit, with her enthusiasm, with her effort. She's also affected us in tangible ways. You saw on the highlight video the screen she set against Arkansas that opened D Rob up to make a layup to send us to overtime to give us a chance to win the game. You saw the three she hit against Creighton, without which we would not have won the game last year. And you saw her tonight do what she does best - put the little orange ball inside that basket.
"I'm not going to promise any national championships. I'm not going to say I'm going to pay my scholarship back, because I already paid part of it. But honestly, we have a remarkable group of girls here and I think we have the potential to do something special," said Willis as she closed her remarks to the crowd.
On Carlee Roethlisberger -
I know many of you have heard the story of how we found her, but I just feel compelled to tell it one more time.
I did a coaches clinic in Ohio and afterward different coaches were coming up to ask this or that - they always want your best plays. You've got a play for this, a play for that. I'm going through the coaches and one of them said ‘have you seen the kid at Findlay'? And I said, ‘no I didn't even know what Findlay was, I could barely get to Ohio'. And the next person in line said ‘hey have you seen the kid at Findlay'? I was like noo. And when the third person asked me about the kid at Findlay I said ‘who's the kid at Findlay??' The people right behind that person, the fourth people in line, said ‘she's our player. We're actually from Findlay'. I said ‘well what's this phenom's name'? And they said ‘Carlee Roethlisberger'. I said ok. Then I stopped and looked at them and they said ‘yes'. And I said ‘and'? And they said ‘yes'. And I said ‘ok, give me her contact information'!
So I came back to Norman and I looked at my trusty assistant Chad Thrailkill and I said ‘here ya go buddy. I need you to go check this kid out.' He looked at the last name and just looked at me and I said ‘yes.' You need to go see this kid and I have no idea, but her high school coaches were there and they know what's going on and you could tell they know what's going on so she must be pretty good.
And so a couple months later I got this phone call from Connie (Roethlisberger's high school coach) and she said ‘hey you may be full up but I just wondered if you had any interest in Carlee'. And I'm like ‘yeah hasn't my assistant coach been in touch with you?' She said ‘no we haven't heard anything'. Well let me put you on hold. So I went down to his office and I said ‘TK remember that business card with that Roethlisberger name?' He turned white as a sheet. I said, ‘yeah, she plays her last game tomorrow. And we haven't seen her play yet and she's still open'.
Poor guy goes and gets on a flight, flies to Findlay, Ohio and doesn't even take a coat, barely has socks on. Calls me from the game the next day and says, ‘please don't fire me!' I said, ‘she must be good huh.' He said, ‘Coach it's only halftime, please don't fire me'. Long story short, TK found Sean and Connie after the game and talked about Oklahoma and what a fit he thought Carlee might be, what they thought Carlee might be and we got her here for a visit and the rest is history.
Carlee is a special, special athlete when you see her run and jump and shoot that beautiful three that is technically just about as perfect as you can get. You see her athleticism, you see her skill as a basketball player, but what you don't get to see is what I get to see every day and what our coaches and our team gets to see. That's her readiness to learn, her willingness to learn every single day just a little bit more about the game.
In four years, I don't think Carlee has ever come to practice unprepared. I don't remember a day when she didn't come to practice and give me everything she had. And that is what makes Carlee Roethlisberger special. You watched her tonight showcase some of the very special things that she can do as a basketball player. But I'll tell you what - one of the most rewarding things about being a college basketball coach is watching kids grow. I've been so rewarded in watching Carlee Roethlisberger become what a special young lady.
"First off about my family - I know I get the Big Ben's little sister thing and keep it coming. I love him and I'm so proud of my big brother and I'm so thankful that he's doing what he is. And thank you Oklahoma fans who have become Steeler fans. It's great," said Carlee Roethlisberger about her brother.
On all-American Danielle Robinson -
We had a long list of guards that we were looking at. So I took off in July which was our recruiting period and I tried to see every one of them. I would go to the gym and watch a game and come back out and draw a line through the name. Go to another gym, watch a game, come back out and draw a line through the name.
In between games - I was up in Oregon watching a tournament - in between games of people I was supposed to see, I sat in a gym, I watched this team play and they had the fastest point guard I had ever seen in my life. I was watching her and asked somebody, ‘who is that'? They said, ‘Danielle Robinson' and I said ‘where is she going' and they said ‘oh she's undecided' and I said, ‘man, she's fast'! I watched her for a while and I had no idea she was a shooter because all she did was shoot layups because they couldn't catch her. So I kind of circled her name in the book and I went to my next destination and I watched point guards and X'ed their names and this went on throughout the summer.
And I came home at the end of July and we were sitting around in a coaches meeting and I said, ‘you know what? I'd like to have the fast girl around.' And they said, ‘well let's call her' and I said ok. So my assistants got on the phone with Danielle and she said, ‘yes I'd like to come to Oklahoma and visit' and I said great! She got on a plane, came to Oklahoma to visit with her mom, Miss Denise, and about the time they walked in the door we just decided you know what, this kid is special.
She has a look in her eye, a smile on her face and the best part about Danielle Robinson was she didn't care that I hadn't written her 562 letters. It didn't matter that we had just discovered her and decided she was pretty good and we wanted her to come. It was not about what we had done for her, it was about how much unity she could step into here at the University of Oklahoma.
Without any fanfare, without any big ordeals, she just said, ‘you know what? I want to come to Oklahoma'. And I said, ‘you know what? We'd love for you to'. And aren't you guys too? Point guards like D Rob make coaches look good. I can tell you because I've had the opportunity to let her make a play at the end of the shot clock that I couldn't draw up if my life depended on it. You don't know what a player your point guard is until you have to try to play without one. And I've been spoiled because I've had the opportunity to coach her for four years.
We're not done yet, sister.
But she's a kid who has taken some very unique natural abilities - her speed is uncanny, her ball handling is extraordinary. She has, however, worked her way into being one of the best point guards in America. And it has been work. The thing that I most appreciate about D Rob is the fact that she is confident enough to be coached every day. Criticism doesn't kill her, it only makes her better. She values praise, but she benefits from criticism because she wants to get better. When she makes mistakes, when she plays a sub-par game before I even get to my phone I have a text message that says what time can we get film tomorrow.
This is a kid who wants to learn. And it hasn't stopped because she's a senior, hasn't stopped because it's February. She is still working, she is still getting better and she might have the most competitive heartbeat of any kid I've ever had here.
"Five years ago when I came for my official visit, I didn't know where Oklahoma was, I couldn't find it on a map, but I knew that it was a place that I wanted to visit. Because of the way I interacted with the coaches on the phone, because of how they portrayed this program and the state of Oklahoma and the support we get here in Norman. I knew that it deserved a chance and when I stepped off that plane - my mom and I have talked about this - at midnight, Coach Coale, and TK and Stacy and Dale were all there at midnight and they had families and other things they could be doing - like sleeping. It meant the world, and I knew that right after that this was the place for me," Danielle Robison on her decision to come to Oklahoma.