Littell brings stability, success to Oklahoma State

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Jim Littell took over as head coach of the Oklahoma State women’s basketball program in the most tragic of circumstances.

One game into the 2011-2012 season, a plane crash claimed the life of then-Oklahoma State head coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna. A grief-stricken Oklahoma State, which lost two players and eight other members of its men’s basketball program to a plane crash in 2001, turned to Littell.

Littell, who was Oklahoma State’s associate head coach that season, guided the Cowgirls through the healing process in 2011-2012. This season, he has guided them to the Notre Dame Regional in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Fifth-seeded Oklahoma State (25-8) plays No. 1 seed Notre Dame (34-0) at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN).

Oklahoma State never had back-to-back 20-win seasons before Littell was named the head coach. Littell has won 20 or more games in each of his three seasons, going 22-11 in 2011-2012, 21-12 last season, and 25-8 so far this season.

In Littell’s first season, the Cowgirls upset No. 23 Texas, shocked defending national champion Texas A&M, and snapped an eight-game losing streak to rival Oklahoma.

Graham Hays of espnW said that Littell, who was 418-61 in 14 seasons as the head coach at Seward County (Kan.) Community College, has been impressive as the head coach of the Cowgirls.

“Obviously, it’s not a situation that compares to anything that we’ve seen recently, in terms of how he had to take over after the crash, and how he had to be a basketball coach, but also how he had to deal with everything else that was going on, helping those kids get through that time,” Hays said. “When you look at what he’s doing from a basketball point of view, it’s impressive, but he’s done so much more beyond that.”

Rajon tweeting

Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride said that it means more to her to receive a compliment from a male.

“You think guys are so much better than girls at basketball, guys are so athletic, guys can dunk, so when a guy says you can play, it’s a little different,” McBride said.

So when Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo took to Twitter to compliment McBride on her game, the Irish star was beaming.

“Rajon Rondo hit me up on Twitter the other day, just saying, ‘Congrats, I love the way you play,’” McBride said. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, Rajon Rondo; he’s my guy.’”

McBride said that the message from Rondo was particularly meaningful.

“It’s cool to have somebody who is so much farther ahead of you, where you want to be, where you aspire to be … recognizing your hard work,” McBride said. “That means something.”

Tough region

Only two regionals have four teams ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll in their field – Stanford and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame (No. 2), Oklahoma State (No. 18), Baylor (No. 6) and Kentucky (No. 11) comprise a field that is the toughest regional as far as Mechelle Voepel of espnW is concerned.

“When we picked our toughest region when the bracket came out, I picked Notre Dame,” Voepel said. “I thought it had the potential to be really pretty difficult.”

Stanford has the host Cardinal (No. 5), South Carolina (No. 8), North Carolina (No. 13) and Penn State (No. 15). Stanford’s regional is the only one with the top four seeds. Notre Dame’s has the No. 1 seed Irish, No. 2 seed Baylor, No. 3 seed Kentucky, and No. 5 seed Oklahoma State.

“Oklahoma State is a really fine team, and with Baylor and Kentucky, both of those are teams I think that you could see in the Final Four, if it were not for Notre Dame being in the region,” Voepel said. “It’s hard to go against Notre Dame, but it’s really a high-quality region.”

Tough play

In Notre Dame’s 84-67 victory Monday against Arizona State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Irish faced a physical team on the boards. Notre Dame outrebounded Arizona State, 39-31, and had an 18-12 edge in second-chance points. Arizona State outrebounded Notre Dame 17-14 in the first half, and had a 6-4 edge in second-chance points in the first 20 minutes.

Irish assistant coach Carol Owens liked that challenge of bruising play.

“I thought this was a good game to face a physical team, and see what it feels like,” Owens said. “This is not the last time that we’re going to see this.”

Owens said that the Irish responded better to the physical play in the second half, and had a better focus in the board battles.

“It takes all five people defensively to box out and go pursue the ball,” Owens said. “We didn’t do that well in the first half, but we did a better job in the second half.”

Oklahoma State head coach Jim Littell took over the program under the most trying of circumstances and has enjoyed a sustained run of success with the Cowgirls. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

WHAT: NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame Regional semifinal

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (34-0) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (25-8)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Limited availability. Check with Notre Dame ticket office at www.und.com/tickets or 574-631-7356.