SULPHUR — Even a week later, it still can baffle the uninitiated.
The setting was Purcell, the event the semifinal game of the Heart of Oklahoma tournament on Jan. 25.
The time was the 2-minute mark of the third quarter. The top-ranked Sulphur Bulldogs were leading a hapless Bridge Creek squad by a margin close to 40. No person in the stands, and the majority of the players on the court, had any doubts the game was essentially over, that once again the Bulldogs had beaten down and pummeled a lengthening list of opponents.
Nobody bothered to tell Sulphur senior shooting guard Tierani Richardson though. The mighty mite had already put together a sterling performance, knocking down three 3-pointers as part of an 18-point day.
A Bridge Creek player tossed a lazy inbound pass after a Sulphur bucket. Richardson, still pressing on defense like it was overtime of the Final Four, dove for the errant pass, fully extending her body and skidding three yards across the court.
Why? What drives someone to keep up that maniacal, borderline insane level of focus?
"I don't want to have any regrets," Richardson said. "None of us do."
Such is the tale of this Sulphur squad, a senior-heavy, talent-loaded squad that has emerged from the hills of Murray County as a juggernaut on the basketball court.
The program has created an attitude, a way of life. In the wake of last season's semifinal loss to Prague, in the worst performance of celebrated senior point guard Ashley Hughes' career, there were no misgivings and no pity parties.
There was only a promise, to themselves and to the rest of Oklahoma; to train, practice and play to their standard, the Sulphur standard, every day.
"It's about self-betterment," Hughes said. "You can't help whoever it is that you may be playing, but you can decide how you play against them."
It's that maturity and wisdom that Sulphur coach Toby Todd has seen in his special squad, the kind of driving force that has every member of the team running up and down the court, in Richardson's words, "like a bunch of ninjas".
"What makes this group special is the leadership of this group of seniors," Todd said. "The ability to create that level of intensity in the whole team, whether it's a regular old conference game or a state championship.
"It really doesn't matter, they'll prepare and play the same way."
It's a culture bred in practice, on grey winter afternoons spent relentlessly working in the Sulphur gym. The points don't count, but the effort and hustle do. No matter what's being worked on, there is movement, constant and fast-paced.
"I like structure, to create that sense of structure in practice," Todd said. "We don't have a lot of dead time where we aren't doing anything."
Page 2 of 3 - But there is nothing like the Bulldogs during defensive drills. In 3-on-3s, the drill looks almost like an intricately choreographed dance, with all six participants running through the exercise at a breakneck speed.
"I want to give them situations in practice that may be harder than what they see in games," Todd said.
The trail of vanquished foes in the Bulldogs' rear-view mirror this season reads like a who's who of state tournament staples. Sulphur has faced five teams ranked in the top 12 of their respective class, with the average margin of victory for those games at 17.8 points.
At 17-0, and with just six games left in the regular season, the squad is likely to finish the year with a perfect regular-season record.
But what has been more remarkable, and the biggest difference between last year's state semifinalist squad, is the tenacious, stifling defensive play of this year's Bulldogs. It has been the brand of intensity and in-your-face physicality that led Richardson to dive at that basketball like it was a falling toddler.
"They move together like one unit," Lone Grove girls coach Jeff Word said. "They don't chase, they don't get out of position and they're always looking, seeing what's going on."
The numbers have been jaw-dropping at times. Sulphur has held 14 of 17 opponents below 35 points, including four opponents who scored 20 or less.
When sixth-ranked Plainview ventured to Sulphur this season, only to be handed a 39-point defeat, head coach Andy Bloodworth left determined to improve the physicality of his young team to match pace with the Bulldogs. Sulphur bullied and pushed around the younger Plainview squad on the defensive end, forcing turnover after turnover in the face of unrelenting pressure.
"They're the standard for everybody else," Bloodworth said at the time. "They showed us what we need to do to reach that next step."
While much attention and (rightfully earned) praise is given to both Richardson and Hughes for their offensive skills, not enough is mentioned about the defensive prowess of forward Ebony Harrison.
Harrison, perhaps more than any other Bulldog, is the perfect symbol of what has made the Sulphur "D" one of the most fearsome forces on the hardwood.
The senior is certainly not a prototypical post player. She measures at a svelte 5-foot-10 on a good day. But on the court, Harrison is an absolute lockdown defender, with the attitude and fierce desire to shut down anybody who dares step into her paint, no matter who they are.
"Especially when people talk about them a lot," Harrison said. "I feel the need to go down there and prove them wrong."
But now, firmly entrenched at No. 1, Sulphur no longer has to prove anybody wrong.
The only thing left is to prove everyone, including themselves, right.
Page 3 of 3 - Spencer White