Cowgirls return to court with a win

STILLWATER, Okla. -- For the first time in more than a week, the Oklahoma State women's basketball team felt somewhat normal for a few hours Saturday.

With nine days filled with funerals, memorials and mourning behind them, the Cowgirls played their first game since OSU coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and boosters Olin and Paula Branstetter were killed in a plane crash Nov. 17.

On Saturday, the Cowgirls wore patches on their uniforms of the number "4" that featured the initials of each crash victim and the date of the accident stiched onto the number. Coppin State players wore orange T-shirts emblazoned with the number "4" during their pregame warmups.

"Today was much deeper than the basketball part of it," OSU interim coach Jim Littell said of the Cowgirls' 59-35 victory over Coppin State at Gallagher-Iba Arena. "We had a chance to pay honor today.

"Did we play like we are capable of? Definitely not, but it was a step. It's much, much deeper than a basketball game."

For the Oklahoma State women's basketball program, returning to the court was more like an opportunity. An opportunity to pay tribute to Budke and Serna with their effort. An opportunity to forget their tears and the roller coaster of emotions experienced in the past week. And, just as importantly, an opportunity to again feel the joy the game can bring.

"It was fun getting to play together again," guard Jenni Bryan said of OSU's first game since a 96-60 victory over Rice on Nov. 13. "We've been trying to practice hard and trying to control our emotions. We've been coming together as a team, knowing the girl to your right and to your left is going to be there for you."

Which is what Budke would have wanted. OSU paid the perfect tribute to Budke during pregame introductions by having the crowd of 3,557 stand and cheer how "The Four" lived their lives instead of a moment of silence to remember them.

"He wouldn't have wanted a moment of silence," Littell said. "He would have wanted to get this place rocking."

Budke, who took over the OSU program in 2005, wasn't the type of person who would've liked seeing his players or fellow coaches spending all of their time mourning him. He would have preferred to see them rally around each other as a team and move forward together.

They did that Saturday.

"I think all of us wanted to play hard in the name of Coach Budke, Coach Serna and the Branstetters," guard Tiffany Bias said.

Budke's parents and other members of his family attended the game to support the Cowgirls and have reached out to players to let them know they will continue to support OSU. After the win, the Cowgirls returned the favor, going into the stands behind their bench to hug each member of the Budke family.

"OSU is a family," said Bias, who played the game with "Budke" written on her right shoe and "Serna" written on her left shoe. "The Budke family is family."

The OSU women's basketball program took a step forward Saturday, remembering what it was like to smile, what it was like to have fun and what life was like before the tragedy.

"It was part of a process getting back on the floor, putting a smile on your face and getting to run up and down," Littell said. "It's OK to smile, it's OK to laugh out there, it's OK to show positive emotion. That's not disrespectful, that's not how Coach Budke and Coach Serna would have wanted it."

Nonetheless, there is a long way to go for the team, coaches and the university, which is dealing with the second plane crash to impact the athletic department in just more than a decade. In January 2001, one of three planes carrying Oklahoma State men's basketball players and staff crashed in a snow storm near Byers, Colo., killing all 10 on board.

"There's going to be a wide range of emotions this year," Littell said. "There's going to be certain things that trigger all of us. We have to take a step every day and try to get better every day."

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.