WEST LAFAYETTE | Two and a half years after Oklahoma State's head coach and an assistant were killed in a plane crash, the emotions still run deep.
Coach Jim Littell dips his head and speaks stoically about how he's kept the surging Cowgirls on track since his predecessor and an assistant were killed in a plane crash 2 ½ years ago. Point guard Tiffany Bias says the players who were in Stillwater, Okla., that awful November day remain motivated by the memories of Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, too.
Now that they are here, one win away from their first Sweet 16 ticket in six years, Bias and the upperclassmen are eager to take that next big step in honor of what Budke and Serna started.
"We always think about them, they're always in the back of our minds," Bias said Sunday. "We play for them, we play for the university and they will always be part of us."
The 58-year-old Littell and his players haven't just attempted to survive and advance. They're thrived in the wake of tragedy.
Five months after the fatal plane crash in Arkansas, Oklahoma State won its first postseason tournament championship — the 2012 WNIT title. Littell has become the first Oklahoma State coach to start his career with three straight 20-win seasons and has won NCAA tournament games in back-to-back seasons, another school first. Over the last three seasons, the Cowgirls have gone from being tied for sixth in the Big 12 to being tied for fifth last season to a third-place tie in 2014.
If fifth-seeded Oklahoma State (24-8) beats fourth-seeded Purdue (22-8) on its home court Monday night, the Cowgirls will make their first regional appearance since 2008. The winner advances to the Notre Dame Regional with a likely date against the unbeaten Fighting Irish.
But as the usually blunt-speaking, old-school coach tries to explain how they've done all this, the words do not come so easily.
"It's not something that I really like talking about," Littell said, glancing at the table. "We lost some people that are very dear to our hearts. We made commitments right then, and I'm not going to talk a lot about it, but we made a commitment that the best way for us to pay honor was to compete, play hard and try to push forward each day. I think that's what this team has done."
There's no doubt about it.
Despite blowing a 15-point second-half lead at second-seeded Duke in the second round, the Cowgirls made it back to the second round thanks to a gritty season and a 61-60 overtime win over Atlantic Sun champ Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.
Guard Brittney Martin believes it's a different team than the one that she said played scared in Durham, N.C. These Cowgirls, Martin believes, will be more comfortable and less anxious, two facets that could make an already intriguing matchup more challenging.
"It's a Big Ten-Big 12 matchup and it's similar to playing a Big Ten team," Purdue guard Courtney Moses said.
Except the Cowgirls are on a mission to finish the job their fallen coaches started all those years ago.
"We were young then, but now we have the maturity, we have people who have been in situations like this," Bias said, reflecting on her teammates' perseverance. "It's exciting for us to be here and we have that drive and determination to be here and to keep going."
Here are five more things to watch Monday night:
BOILER ROOM: Purdue is dealing with its own regional drought. Once a regular in the Sweet 16, the Boilermakers haven't won a second-round game since 2009.
CHANGING IT UP: The Cowgirls spent most of Saturday chasing Florida Gulf Coast's 3-point shooters. Now they'll have to contend with a more traditional offense. One key will be how quickly and smoothly Oklahoma State adjusts.
RECORD SETTER: Moses isn't just Purdue's top scorer at 15.7 points. She's the catalyst. Her early scoring binge and big block helped Purdue jump to a 20-2 lead against Akron. On Monday, Moses will also try to make history. Her next 3-pointer will break a tie with Katie Gearlds for the most in school history (238).
ROLLERCOASTER RIDE: Oklahoma State has gone 8-7 in last 15 games, alternating wins and losses throughout that span. To advance, that must change.
TIME DIFFERENCE: The originally scheduled 6:30 p.m. tip has been pushed back to 9 p.m. It may not seem like a big deal, but Littell noted Purdue could get a slight advantage since the home team's players can relax in their own apartments and dorm rooms rather than staying at a hotel.