'I’m literally like the grandma': Ana Llanusa relishing her role on Sooners despite season-ending injury

Ryan Aber

NORMAN — Four years isn’t that long ago, but it feels like a lifetime in college sports.

It feels like a lifetime ago for Ana Llanusa.

With OU playing in the NCAA Tournament this season for the first time since 2018, Llanusa is the only player on the Sooners’ roster with tournament experience.

“I’m literally like the grandma,” Llanusa said.

Llanusa won’t be on the floor for Saturday’s tournament opener, or any other time in this tournament, for the No. 4 seeded Sooners after she suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 10.

But Llanusa has tried to be as involved as possible.

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Oklahoma coach Jennie Baranczyk talks with guard Ana Llanusa during a practice for the University for Oklahoma women's basketball team prior to the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla., Friday, March 18, 2022. Oklahoma will play IUPUI in the first round of the tournament on Saturday, March 19.

“She’s always trying to figure out what we need and how she can help with that and using her voice,” OU guard Taylor Robertson said. “It’s really cool to be able to have that coming from a player’s perspective that isn’t able to be on the court. 

“She’s been really positive throughout the whole year ever since she got hurt. I can’t even imagine how that feels, but it’s really cool to see her do that and to be able to help the team.”

Llanusa was back out on the floor Friday at Lloyd Noble Center, staying engaged during the No. 4-seeded Sooners practice ahead of their 9 p.m. Saturday opener against No. 13 IUPUI.

“I don’t mind it at all,” Llanusa said of the “grandma” label. “It just allows me to grow with more relationships. Honestly, when you’re on a team, you can find new friends, you can build relationships with different people, and I think it’s an opportunity.

"I don’t mind being the most experienced one. I’ve started since my freshman year, and so I can really help the younger kids. I can even help people like Madi (Williams), who is experienced, but just might need somebody else who is experienced to talk to.”

In 2018, when the Sooners were the No. 12 seed in College Station, Texas, Llanusa played 22 minutes in OU’s 90-79 opening-round loss to DePaul.

“I don’t think my freshman year I really didn’t really know any better,” Llanusa said. “I just thought it was another game. And yes, it is another game, but it’s a big opportunity, and not many people, not many teams get to play in it. So I’ve just been trying to let those young girls know what a big opportunity it is, and especially to play at home.”

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Llanusa had embraced the mentorship role with her much younger teammates, especially backup point guard Kelbie Washington.

“Ever since I met her, she’s been a figure for me to look up to,” Washington said. “She’s more than a best friend — she’s like a sister to me.

“She sees things that sometimes we just don’t see, and that’s been very helpful, especially during times like this. … Even though she can’t play, she still is a positive person, working hard to get better and that shows her character and the reason why we all love her and look up to her.”

Llanusa’s career has been marred by injuries. 

She missed 10 games her sophomore season. The next year, she missed seven games. Then last season she missed the entire season due to injury.

So when Llanusa’s latest injury happened, there was little doubt in her mind she wanted to return next season, especially with Williams and Robertson returning as well.

“It’s not my time yet,” Llanusa said. “I think we — Madi, T-Rob and I — can all come back and really carry this team and win a couple, maybe a Big 12 title, maybe further on than that.

“Just wasn’t done yet.”

Llanusa said this injury has been more difficult to recover from than her others.

When she heard a loud pop coming from her knee during that early season game, Llanusa thought it was going to be much worse.

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Injured OU guard Ana Llanusa watches during Friday's practice at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” Llanusa said. “But I really thought I snapped my leg. Like, I thought when I got up it was just gonna be dangling.”

But when she stood up, Llanusa felt relatively normal, and had some hope that her anterior cruciate ligament wasn’t torn. 

A bout with COVID-19 delayed Llanusa’s MRI, but eventually the tear was confirmed. But by that time, Llanusa had a pretty good idea something wasn’t right just by the atrophy of her leg during that short time frame.

With her other surgeries, on her back and her foot, Llanusa couldn’t start rehab immediately. But with her knee surgery, Llanusa was back to work the next day.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Llanusa said of the recovery process. “It’s been challenging. I think mentally more than physically.

“It was awful. Like a month of sleepless nights because it’s so painful and the rehab is intense.”

But Llanusa can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She’s hoping to start jogging again in three weeks and plans to be back to 100% or close to it by the beginning of next season.

For now, though, she’s trying to make the most of her role and her return to the NCAA Tournament.

“She’s such an integral part of what we’re doing and how we’ve been able to do some things this year,” Sooners coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “It’s unfortunate that this is a little bit familiar territory. 

“It’s been fun to be able to watch her growth as her voice has continued to get bigger and bigger as the season has gone on.”