From tragedy to triumph

At Big 12 media day last October, Kurt Budke sounded like he almost couldn't wait to be at the same event a year in the future. He was excited about the young talent on his Oklahoma State team and felt sure that the players' growth potential was very, very strong.

That's the image I will always keep in my mind of Budke: smiling and looking ahead.

Saturday, on the same Gallagher-Iba court where Budke and his assistant, Miranda Serna, were eulogized last November after their deaths in a plane crash, those left behind had as happy an ending to the season as they could have hoped for after their devastating loss.

Oklahoma State beat James Madison 75-68 for the WNIT championship in Stillwater, Okla.

Liz Donohoe, the player whom Budke had correctly predicted would be the best freshman in the Big 12, had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Tiffany Bias, the player whom Budke recruited with the promise that it would be her team to run, had 17 points, 11 assists and 5 steals.

Toni Young, the player he sometimes butted heads with because she could be stubborn, led the Cowgirls with 25 points. And Jim Littell, the best friend who had to pull a shattered group together despite his own personal grief, now has a national championship as Oklahoma State's head coach.

Yes, it's the WNIT, but it really does mean something. On Selection Monday a few weeks ago, the Cowgirls would have rather gone dancing in the NCAA tournament. However, the truth is that it worked out much better for them this way.

Oklahoma State won three games in a row to end the regular season, but then played erratically in a first-round Big 12 tournament loss to Missouri. The WNIT gave the Cowgirls a chance to play six more games -- all of them at home -- and that has to be a great springboard into next season.

The Cowgirls beat their six opponents -- Central Arkansas, Wichita State, Missouri State, Colorado, San Diego State and JMU -- by an average of 14 points. Young, a junior post player from Del City, Okla., averaged 20.7 points in those contests.

"Young is probably the best center we've played against all year," JMU coach Kenny Brooks said. "She was tremendous inside and athletic. And Bias was probably the best point guard we've played against all year. Those two, I thought, were the biggest factors, and we just couldn't contain them when we needed to."

For Young, witnessing a crowd of 6,000-plus come into the game -- on the same day as the men's Final Four semifinals -- and seeing Budke's widow, Shelley, cut down the net afterward, are images she'll keep in mind forever.

"It was pretty tough, but having the support of the team and our community behind us -- it helped a lot," Young said of this team's journey through grief. "We got through it all together as one. We stuck together this whole season. We're getting stronger and still growing together."

Last weekend, Trinity Valley won the junior college Division I national championship on newly christened "Kurt Budke Court" at the Bicentennial Center in Budke's hometown of Salina, Kan.

The Texas school won four NJCAA titles when Budke ran the program. The Cardinals finished a 36-0 season, and Shelley Budke cut down the nets there, too.

Sunday, you'll see reminders of Budke and Serna at the women's Final Four. With patches on uniforms and pins on coaches' lapels, there are reminders of the two who dedicated their professional lives to women's basketball.

They are gone, but with their performance this season, the Cowgirls showed the impact that Budke and Serna had on their lives. There will be another wave of pain now as the season is over and all involved with Oklahoma State women's basketball face some of the emptiness that is always there when anything ends.

But they have something very tangible to show for persevering: a trophy that would make both their fallen coaches extremely proud.