Watching her son Colton’s high-school team make an unexpected run in the high school playoffs gave Sherri Coale a fresh reminder of the exhilaration of being the underdog.
It’s not a feeling she gets to experience much anymore as the head coach at Oklahoma.
Her Sooners (31-4) take much more than the No. 1 seed into Tuesday night’s regional semifinal against sixth-seeded Purdue. There’s the added expectation of victory since they’ll be playing in front of a home crowd in Oklahoma City and then the matter of All-America center Courtney Paris’ national championship guarantee.
All that combines to create an entirely different atmosphere than what she experienced as her son’s Norman High School team headed into the postseason.
“They were David and everybody they faced was Goliath, over and over. And they won and they won, and they got one game away from state. I had so much fun living vicariously through that as a mom, being David,” Coale said.
“I had forgotten the difference and how much it feels different because we’re always supposed to win now. We’re supposed to be here. This is what we’re supposed to do.”
Paris has been saying since before the season started that anything less than the school’s second Final Four appearance would be a disappointment, and that the Sooners’ first national championship was the true goal.
Meanwhile, Purdue coach Sharon Versyp has said she thinks her team has been able to relax and do without any pressure because it entered the NCAA tournament as an underdog. Only five teams have ever made it to the Final Four when seeded No. 6 or lower, most recently seventh-seeded Minnesota in 2004.
Looks can be deceiving, though. As a program with three Final Four appearances and 16 straight NCAA tournament berths, Purdue is certainly no slouch. The Boilermakers have even been to the regional finals twice since the Sooners’ last appearance in 2002.
“This Purdue team is not unaccustomed to being in the NCAA tournament. They have had tons of success, they’ve won conference championships and obviously their program has a recent national championship,” Coale said. “Ten years ago, they were the national champions.”
Coale remembers that well, since one of her program’s building-block wins came on Purdue’s home court a year later in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the Sooners’ first appearance in the NCAAs under Coale and only the third in the history of the program that was briefly dropped 10 years earlier.
“Everything about it was the personification of what we had done with our program: climb a hill, climb a hill, climb a hill, only to see another hill,” Coale said.
Versyp can relate to the struggles Oklahoma had encountered at the time. She decided to play for Purdue in the 1980s after a five-win season—the same total the Sooners had in Coale’s first season—and helped build the program to the point that the Boilermakers made their first NCAA tournament appearance the year after her playing career was over.
“We felt like it’s kind of like, as I always explain it, the John Wooden pyramid. We built that foundation, and we really worked hard for it,” Versyp said. “When you were in the gym, you could hear the squeaky shoes because we didn’t have a lot of fans.”
Versyp, who wasn’t with the Boilermakers for their first three Final Four appearances, is now trying to recapture the program’s glory days by leading the program back for the first time since 2001.
“I have so much pride for being able to be the coach here, and I’m very blessed obviously to have this opportunity and to be able to do a lot of different things and bridge the gap and continue to win,” she said. “I hopefully feel that I have helped build that foundation and now continue this program for a long time.”
Her players have bought into her appeal that this year’s team isn’t getting the respect it deserves.
“We were here two years ago and we were in the top 10 the whole year and we got no respect, so I don’t think this win is going to make or break our program in any way,” point guard FahKara Malone said.
“I think we’re going to continue to play great basketball, but we do want to win this game for not only ourselves but for our university and hopefully people will take notice once we get the victory.”
Coale said she is taking time to make sure her players and assistant coaches understand how difficult it is to get this far in the tournament instead of getting lost in the pressure to reach the Final Four.
“It’s an incredible feat,” said freshman Whitney Hand, who scored a career-high 22 points in the regional semifinals against Pittsburgh. “There’s eight teams left and we’re one of them. We’re one of the lucky few that get to play again, that get to practice another day.
“We won and survived, and you can’t take any day for granted because never know how long you’re going to be here.”
At the end of the day, though, players on both teams know what’s on the line is a chance to add their names to their school’s storied history.
“There’s always that added pressure when you get to that promised land, but that’s what we’re here for,” Versyp said. “This is what you live for, every single day. This is what players and coaches dream of is having that opportunity to take that next step.”