CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell was walking back to his office after the NCAA Tournament seeds were announced and heard a ball bouncing on an otherwise quiet Eddie Sutton Court. He took a peek inside and found Brittney Martin addressing finer points of her game.
Martin didn’t always have the work habits she developed over four years with the Cowgirls. She was an immature freshman when she arrived in 2012 before turning herself into the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. She will be St. Bonaventure’s top priority going into the game Friday night.
“She’s at the tail end of her senior year,” Littell said. “We wouldn’t have seen her in there her freshman year. She had a little Allen Iverson attitude at the beginning. She’s grown as a person. She’s a fan favorite. Kids gravitate to her in Stillwater. She’s done so much. I would definitely say she’s been the face of our program.”
Martin averaged 20.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game this season and had 84 steals, becoming the first Big 12 player in history to lead the conference in all three categories. She also was the best defensive player in the conference and averaged 17.4 points and 11 rebounds against Top 25 teams.
“I’ve changed a lot over the past three years knowing I needed to get into the gym,” Martin said. “This is my last year, and I wished I would have realized it earlier. It’s getting in the gym more and practicing more, bringing it every single day in everything I do. .. I’ve never played harder in my life as I have this year.”
Martin was born with a life-threatening heart defect, a narrowing of the main blood vessel leading to the heart. Doctors told her parents that the problem would stunt her growth. She ended up growing to 6 feet and becoming one of the best high school players in the country.
“You’re talking about the Big 12 Player of the Year,” Crowley said. “It’s a conference with Baylor, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma. She’s old-school. She’s like Kelly Tripucka or Adrian Dantley or Kiki Vandeweghe. She’s incredible with mid-range shots. She can get to the rim and get off screens.”
Martin scored in double-figures in all but two games this season, both wins, and had 19 games in which she had at least 10 points and 10 rebounds. She scored half of her team’s points in a 52-45 upset over superpower Baylor in December. She’s expected to play in the WNBA next season.
“She’s done everything but drive the bus for us,” Littell said. “It’s been a terrific year. She’s very deserving. She’s put in the time.”
St. Bonaventure has played Oklahoma State only once in its history. The two teams met in Hawaii during the 1997-98 season, when Bona coach Jim Crowley was an assistant. Kaylee Jensen, the 6-foot-4 center for Oklahoma State, laughed Thursday when she was asked what she knew about St. Bonaventure and where it was located.
“Before this week, I had no clue,” she said. “We started watching them on film. It looks like a really good team. They’re scrappy.”
Littell was unnerved about Bona’s playing style, which contradicts the way most teams play in the bigger, more athletic Big 12. The Bonnies’ speed and acumen grabbed Littell’s attention when he reviewed their games.
“We haven’t seen this style, and it’s concerning,” Littell said. “They play five-out motion. They play fast and create mismatch problems for you. We create some mismatch problems for them as well. They play with a very high basketball IQ. They understand the game. I really like their team.”
Crowley was pleasantly surprised but not stunned when St. Bonaventure was announced as the 10th seed. After believing his doomed with their quarterfinal loss in the Atlantic 10 tourney, he started comparing the Bonnies’ profile to other bubble teams in recent history and realized they had a chance.
On the ride home, he found only two teams that were among the Top 35 in Power Ratings Index and had three victories against Top 50 teams had been denied in the past seven years. But after the men’s team was snubbed after winning a share of the conference title and finishing with a Top 30 RPI, he didn’t know what to expect.
“We were watching to see if favorites were winning and bids were getting stolen,” Crowley said. “Our bubble stayed small. The guys’ bubble kept getting bigger. That was the difference.”
Lancaster native Katie Healy isn’t likely to move up the charts on any list before leaving as one of the best players in St. Bonaventure history. Healy is third in career scoring (1,677 points), fourth in rebounds (824), fourth in games with at least 10 points (87) and first in blocks (152).
The Bonnies have another Western New Yorker in freshman McKenna Maycock, Buffalo News Prep Talk Athlete of the Year in 2014-15 and a three-sport star at Randolph High.
Maycock is the all-time leading scorer in Western New York girls basketball history (2,947), was a two-time state Player of the Year in Class C. She was all-WNY in basketball and volleyball and finished second in the state in the 400-meter hurdles. She scored 33 points this season while seeing limited action.
You know how there’s only one degree of separation for Western New Yorkers rather than six degrees for everybody else? Well, here’s yet another connection, this one to Oregon State.
Olean native Brooks Hatch is an athletics communications assistant for the host university. He graduated from East Aurora High in 1972, left for the University of Richmond and never moved back. He lived in the same dorm as former Bills safety Jeff Nixon at Richmond and was two years behind Jim Kelly’s brother, Pat.
Two weeks ago, I randomly bumped into three Western New Yorkers in a 20-minute stretch in Richmond. On Wednesday night, I was struck up a conversation with a gentleman from Portland who told me he had a good friend from Buffalo named Chris Nunciato. Nunciatio graduated two years behind me at Frontier High.
I’m telling you, it’s a gift.