Climb back worth it for Dales, Oklahoma

With a rebuilt knee, she eyes title tonight vs. unbeaten UConn

NCAA Tournament

March 31, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - For Oklahoma guard Stacey Dales, tonight's women's national championship game against top-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut is the culmination of five years of hard work and a triumph over tough circumstances.

When Dales, a fifth-year senior and two-time All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year, arrived in Norman from Brockville, Ontario, in 1997, the Sooners' program - which had nearly been eliminated seven years before - was coming off a 5-22 season.

And Dales had to sit and watch her teammates slog through an 8-19 campaign in her freshman year, as she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the season opener against Stephen F. Austin.

"I think I had bed rot," Dales said. "My first year, I was in a state of depression. I was in my room and I saw the four walls and I just sat there," Dales said. "At the same time, I would go to the gym and I would have these butterflies churning every day because I could see and I could feel how good we were going to get.

"It was just a constant battle between frustration and absolute joy and absolute anticipation of where we were going to be. I knew we were going to get there. I just didn't know when it was going to happen. My first year was bleak and depressing at times. ... You would do everything you can to win and I would sit on the sidelines, because I was injured that year, and I would watch us lose and lose. But on the other side of the coin, it was like, `Wow, we're going to be good. I feel it.' And we're here now."

The Sooners (32-3) are, indeed, at the doorstep of the first women's basketball championship in school history, thanks in large part because Dales and fellow seniors LaNeisha Caufield, Rosalind Ross and Jamie Talbert have rallied their teammates, two of whom suffered the same injury as did Dales.

The Oklahoma players also bought into the system of coach Sherri Coale, who came to the program straight from a local high school, where she met Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma while he was recruiting Stacy Hansmeyer, who is now a Coale assistant.

"We have overcome a lot of things," Coale said. "Sometimes when you're successful, those things get swept under the carpet and people don't talk about them. That's OK. I don't think you have to come in and carry a shield and say we have three torn ACLs. Stacey being able to come back from her injury was a big deal for her at the time. None of these other guys were here yet. But that was a big deal for her, improving her toughness.

"And I think as much as anything instilling an even deeper appreciation for the fact that you get to play. And if there is a key to any of that, of our overcoming obstacles and difficulties and being resilient, it is the fact that our guys daily remind each other. You've got Antoinette Wadsworth sitting in street clothes, and Jen Cunningham, who has had four torn ACLs; they remind everybody how blessed they are to have two good legs, or one in Ross' case, and to be able to go out and function and play this game."

The results came slow and steady, from an National Invitation Tournament berth in the 1998-99 season, to three straight Big 12 regular-season titles, back-to-back conference tournament wins and NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances to this year's breakthrough.

Caufield, the team's leading scorer and best defender, and Ross, who scored 26 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in Friday's 86-71 win over Duke, are keys to the backcourt. Talbert and junior Caton Hill are talented interior players, but the Sooners clearly take their cue from Dales, a 6-foot guard who does killer impersonations of Saturday Night Live characters and is certain to be one of the first five players taken in next month's WNBA draft.

"I think they've learned how to overcome in a big game, if Stacey Dales doesn't have her `A' game," Auriemma said. "I think at some point they were really relying on her an awful lot. She had to have a big game in order for them to win.

"And they've matured to the point where - look at [Friday's] game. Stacey Dales wasn't the dominant player in the game. But Rosalind Ross steps up and - bang. They're so well-balanced and so confident in each other and in their abilities. They play loosey-goosey, carefree basketball. I don't think they're affected by much - that's why they're here."

The Sooners' next big hurdle to overcome is Connecticut, which is bidding to become the fourth team in NCAA women's history to complete a season undefeated, having already beaten Oklahoma, 86-72, in December in Hartford.

Considering the odds she's already beaten, overcoming the Huskies' mystique might just be a piece of cake for Dales.

"Going through this tournament, we've really felt that we have to take care of Oklahoma," said Dales. "In the past, you have to worry a little bit more about the opponent, but now we have to worry a little bit more about ourselves. It's an equal tradeoff, and if we execute, we can make things happen and we can succeed against this team."

Women's Final 4

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