A rare occurrence happened in the media interview room when Oklahoma State head coach Jim Littell walked in - he was accompanied by two upperclassmen for the first time this season. Littell sauntered in with a smile on his face and two juniors at his side as Toni Young and Lindsey Keller were rewarded for their efforts in Friday's 72-51 win over Central Arkansas in the first round of the WNIT.
Usually the stellar play freshman Liz Donohoe, sophomore Tiffany Bias or one of the other seven underclassmen make bringing in 66.6% of the juniors a near impossibility. But on this night Young and Keller made it clear that although their next loss won't be their last collegiate game, they want to stave off the summer as long as possible.
"I've actually been thinking about last year's game (in the WNIT versus Pepperdine when Young scored a career-high 34 points)," Young said. "That was my last game of the season before breaking my arm and I didn't want tonight to be my last game of the season if we lost, so my mentality was just kind of to play hard."
And play hard she did.
Young led all game scorers with 22 points and added nine rebounds in the win. She scooped up five offensive boards that led to 11 Cowgirl second-chance points. She misdirected, altered or outright blocked attempt after attempt from the Sugar Bears. And she hit a couple of milestones - 1,000 career points and 100 career blocks.
"I really didn't know I was at 1,000," Young said after the game. "It's usually better not to know those things because then you focus too much on it and then you start missing layups and shots. It's just another point to me."
Littell chimed in, "It just means she's old, she's been around for a long time." Something that, on a team chock full of freshman and sophomores, is somewhat of a novelty.
Keller was a killer on the floor for the Cowgirls. She tamped down defensively on Central Arkansas' leading scorer, rebounder and defender. Megan Hebert, a two-time Southland Conference player of the year and current defensive player of the year, managed but six points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field and picked up 10 rebounds. This falls well below her season averages of 17.6 points and 11.3 rebounds a night for the Sugar Bears.
"What I always come out to do every time, it doesn't really matter whether they're the MVP or not, I don't want my player to score, basically," Keller explained her defensive mindset on the court. "Not taking anything away from how great of a player she is, but in the Big 12 they're bigger for the most part and she's a little smaller.
"I did fall asleep a few times - I did - and Coach got on to me," Keller continued with grin and a pat on Littell's arm. "That was my fault, but I just tried to go out there and listen to the scouting report and make sure I do what my coaches tell me and just be the way I've been taught."
Considering Herbert's only basket came with 11:39 to play in the first half and the score at 15-14 in favor of the Cowgirls, it didn't really appear that Keller got too many zzzz's during the course of the game.
The contest continued to be close in nature throughout that first half and OSU held a slim 36-34 lead at the midpoint. The Pokes came out of the locker room and went on a 14-5 run to build a double-digit lead. When the action hit that magic plateau, it was all but over. The Cowgirls wore down the Sugar Bears and cruised through the second half.
"I thought we played hard and made some adjustments at halftime, and the girls did a lot better job guarding in the second half," Littell said. "The dribble-drive was hurting us quite a bit in the first half and we made some adjustments on what we wanted to do on that, and I thought the kids really responded well."
Their defensive response led to Central Arkansas shooting 14.8% from the field (and 1-of-10 from 3) in the second half after hitting 40.7% of their shots in the first. The visitors finished the game shooting 27.8% and the stout defense led to a successful offensive outing for OSU. The Cowgirls shot 49.2% from the field and were able to get 38 points in the paint.
This all-around game proved to be a positive rebound from a very disappointing loss to Missouri in the Big 12 Conference tournament that knocked OSU into the category of "first four out". Despite being so close to earning a bid in the Big Dance, the Cowgirls are learning and growing in the midst of their disappointment.
"We said that what we need to learn as a young basketball team this year is let's go control our own destiny," Littell said of this hard-knock life lesson from the last week. "We got to the point in the season where we kind of needed some other teams to win at the end of the conference and then we didn't control our own destiny playing Missouri the first game.
"So we just said let's learn for the future, let's go out and play hard, let's get better each time out and give ourselves and opportunity to just respect this game and learn how we've got to play each time out."
Along with already setting up the right frame of mind for this young team to grow wiser heading into the 2012-13 season, the Cowgirls aren't done competing in the current season, either. Littell is combining a look toward the distant future with an eagerness to continue playing basketball in the near future.
"We have an opportunity to play some more and that was our goal - let's just compete and win as many games as we possibly can and let's use this to jump start our season for next year."
OSU's next opportunity to compete is Sunday at 2 p.m. CT, as they host Wichita State in the WNIT's second round.