COLUMBUS, Ohio – Crystal Bradford made a statement on the court with a career-high 36 points, one she hopes will resonate into next season.
She added 14 rebounds in Central Michigan's 78-73 loss to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
"We plan on working all offseason," Bradford said. "Everybody's going to be a threat. That's the plan for next year and to be back on this big stage."
Bradford did everything she could, also adding seven steals and two assists, but the Chippewas (21-12) still came up short. Niki DiGuilio also vowed that opponents will pay for 11th-seeded CMU's early knockout.
"Everyone who plays us better watch out," said DiGuilio, who added 10 points. "Everyone needs to watch out next year."
The Chippewas fell behind 43-34 at intermission. Throughout the second half, they strung together points and takeaways off their defense (forcing 24 turnovers). But when they got in range of the Sooners (23-10), the momentum would shift.
"We'd get it to two or three and they would just pull away," said Bradford, who made 14 of 31 shots from the field, including 5 of 10 3-pointers and 3 of 5 free throws.
Joanna McFarland carried the Sooners in the first half with 16 points and nine rebounds, finishing with 18 and 17. But Aaryn Ellenberg scored 18 of her 22 points in the second half, including four critical 3-point shots.
Ellenberg, who holds Oklahoma's season (103) and career (272) records for 3-pointers made, hit 4 of 5 in the second half to rally her team, which was struggling to hold the lead. She hit three in a row during one span for the Sooners. With 3:11 left and late in the shot clock, she hit another to extend the lead to 71-60.
"When they got close, we knew we had to gather ourselves," Ellenberg said. "We were not going to give up the lead."
The lead waffled between nine points but as few as two for most of the second half, with the teams trading runs.
Ellenberg's three 3s in the middle of the second half allowed Oklahoma to hold off CMU, which had drawn to 49-47 on a three-point play by Bradford. When her third 3 caught nothing but net, it gave the Sooners a 58-49 lead.
Still, the Chippewas pulled to 73-68 with just over a minute left on a floater by Brandie Baker, who had 12 points, but they could get no closer.
"We kept coming back," CMU coach Sue Guevara said. "We had wide-open shots but they just didn't go."
Amazingly, Central Michigan had 31 more shots from the field (84-53) but made only 31 percent to the Sooners' 47 percent.
Oklahoma put the game away on two foul shots apiece by Morgan Hook and Sharane Campbell and one by Ellenberg in the final 25 seconds.
Central was making its third appearance in the NCAA tournament, but first since making back-to-back trips in 1983 and '84.
Guevara's team — she began her career as a graduate assistant coaching on the same Ohio State court under Tara VanDerveer in 1984 — was 12th in the nation in scoring, averaging 74.4 points. The Chippewas scored 70 or more points in 23 games.
They also played a solid pre-conference schedule that included games against NCAA contestants Green Bay (1-1), Notre Dame, Purdue, Saint Joseph's and South Dakota State to finish 3-3. A No. 4 seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament, they rolled through three top teams to capture the championship.
Guevara was still upbeat after the close loss to the Sooners.
"As a coach, you can only ask that (the players) give you everything they have," she said. "And they did."
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