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Cowgirl basketball fights through Big 12 grind

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OSU Women's Basketball @ Oklahoma

The Cowgirls celebrate after the clock strikes zero in OSU's victory against the Sooners on Saturday.

Loryn Goodwin wanted a challenge in her final season.

Before deciding to play in the Big 12, Goodwin played in not one, not two, but three conferences. Whether it was playing in the Sun Belt at North Texas, where Goodwin started her career, in the Big East at Butler or in Conference USA at Texas-San Antonio, she has experienced the grind of playing Division-I basketball.

After coaching changes and other unforeseen circumstances, Goodwin found herself playing for the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team this season. As the postseason approaches, Goodwin said this has been the most challenging season she's faced.

Playing in arguably one of the toughest conferences, Goodwin said she has been forced to evaluate her game and find ways to learn and improve. Not only does OSU play in a strong conference with Baylor and Texas, but it also scheduled top-ranked opponents in nonconference play, including Mississippi State, Tennessee and UCLA.

Goodwin said this is what she wanted, especially playing through a regular-season Big 12 slate.

“I wanted to be pushed,” Goodwin said. “I wanted to use my head a lot more, being able to get better on different things on the floor. I think I have done that, and I have challenged myself this year. I think every game is a challenge playing in the Big 12.”

With how difficult the conference can be, Goodwin said she enjoys having Littell, her teammates and other staff members around her to help her through playing for the Cowgirls and in the Big 12.

Goodwin found a groove and her niche early but said the conference season has taught her valuable basketball lessons. She said the top-to-bottom competition and play style are the biggest differences from the Big 12 to the other conferences she has played in, especially defensively.

“I think you really have to be on our game defensively,” Goodwin said. “I would say I am a pretty solid defender, but you really have to look into the scout and see exactly what plays and what the other team is going to exactly do. How you are supposed to play screens and knowing you need to play off of this person; those are the things I wasn’t used to before this year.”

Offensive styles also aren’t the same, she said. Goodwin said OSU runs more sets and there is a specific game plan the team has to follow to win a game.

She said these little details weren’t stressed as much playing in the Sun Belt, Big East or Conference USA.

“You could kind of invent some things but not here,” Goodwin said. “It is different in that way, but I would say it is challenged me a lot and it has brought out the best of me.”

Starting at point guard, Goodwin averaged 21.1 points, 5.2 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game in the regular season. She leads the conference in points and steals.

OSU coach Jim Littell and Kaylee Jensen are used to the challenges presented within the Big 12. Jensen, a senior center, said there hasn’t been an easy conference game since she has arrived in Stillwater, and she said it's no different in her final season.

Jensen said the Big 12 never gets easier, especially this season. She said each game is difficult, and she said a team can’t expect to win at home. It definitely can’t expect a win on the road, Jensen said.

Littell agreed, saying there is considerable parity in the conference.

“I think even (Texas) Tech is playing, Tech is in last right now, they have played people tough,” Littell said. “… I think you see two teams separate themselves in Baylor and Texas, but three through nine or three through 10, on a given night if you are not ready to play, you can get beat.”

Sitting in the Gallagher-Iba Arena media room, Littell, Jensen and Goodwin were at a loss for words Jan. 24. Bridget Carleton scored a career-high 39 points, leading Iowa State, which had a losing record, to an upset win against then-No. 19 OSU in Stillwater.

Minutes earlier, ISU coach Bill Fennelly entered with a smile on his face, saying he was happy with the win after playing tough but losing to Baylor and West Virginia, who were also ranked, at home the previous week. Fennelly said he wouldn’t celebrate for long, as he realized the Cyclones’ next game was in three days against then-No. 6 Texas in Austin.

He left with a message, describing how challenging the Big 12 is.

“I think every coach will tell you the same thing: the Big 12 is a monster,” Fennelly said. “It wears you out. … All I know, the next one is going to be hard; whoever it is.”

Throughout the season, Goodwin said she has had to find ways to adjust to the difficulty of the Big 12, as well as the physicality, size and strength of players in the conference. Goodwin also said she has to keep her body fresh.

Goodwin, who averaged 38 minutes per game in conference, said she is used to playing a majority of a game. Listed at 5-feet-9, Goodwin said every time she goes for a layup, a 6-4 or 6-5 center is waiting in the Big 12.

“You might get a foul called, but you are taking a blow every drive,” Goodwin said. “It takes a toll on your body.”

As the season progressed, Littell said he had to figure out how to balance practice time and rest time for his players. Littell said in February he cut his sometimes three-hour practices considerably.

He said he has decreased practice times to a little more than an hour.

“You start watching the minutes that your starters are logging,” Littell said. “If you have people like Kaylee Jensen or Loryn Goodwin or Braxtin Miller playing 38 minutes a night, you have to be smart about how you practice. … We try to keep fresh legs and fresh minds. And still cover the things that you need to cover to feel like you have your team well prepared to play.”

Jensen echoed Goodwin, saying she has to try to recover from the grueling season. They said players will do anything to make it through the season. They said keeping their legs fresh is vital. 

Goodwin said she not only does extra stretches and uses the foam roller, but also she does something she dreads to help her legs.

“I cold tub after every practice now; I used to do it maybe once a week, but now I do every single day because it is just a grind,” Goodwin said. “I have found that the more I cold tub, even though it hurts and I don’t really want to do it, it has really helped me to be able to play a lot of minutes and be productive in those minutes and go as hard as I can.”

Agreeing with her teammate, Jensen said she isn’t a fan of the cold tub. She said she gets through the season with it. Jensen said she realizes she and Goodwin aren’t the only players who go through these stresses.

“I think everybody is, but that is just the thing; every team is going through those aches and pains of the long wear and tear of the season,” Jensen said. “It is just one of those things that you got to keep pushing through. You can’t whine about it.

“... We just gotta power through.”

Goodwin said every player feels the grind heading into March. If she and her teammates continue to take care of their bodies, Goodwin said they will be ready for the NCAA Tournament. OSU isn’t locked into the NCAA Tournament; it might need to solidify its position in the Big 12 tournament, which starts Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

After losing to OSU on the Cowgirls’ Senior Night on Monday, TCU coach Raegan Pebley echoed Littell, speaking about the parity in the conference. She discussed in most years, TCU (18-11 overall, 9-9 Big 12), and OSU with 11 conference wins, would be locks for the NCAA Tournament.

This season, it isn’t the case. Both teams are playing to get off bubble status.

“I just think the Big 12 is a great, great conference,” Pebley said. “I think the parity in our league is so good. Parity should not be a negative, when you’re at the (Division I) level. I think it should only be a positive.”

Jensen said she is extremely focused. OSU wasn’t selected to the NCAA Tournament last season and it lost in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament against Abilene Christian in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

In her final season, Jensen averaged 18.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, which leads the Big 12, and 1.3 blocks per game. Saturday, OSU will start its postseason run as the No. 3 seed in the second round of the Big 12 tournament against sixth-seeded West Virginia (20-10, 8-10) at 8:30 p.m.

She said she wants more for this season.

“I really want to go to the tournament, again,” Jensen said. “It would kind of hurt with it being my last year.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com