Commentary

Paris twins hope to take program one step further in final season

Originally Published: November 18, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Courtney and Ashley ParisPeter G. Aiken/US PresswireCourtney Paris, left, and twin Ashley Paris combined to average 29.9 points and 22.9 boards last season.
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale wasn't going there. Asked about the difficulty of not letting the Paris twins' final season in Norman become emotionally overwhelming, Coale answered that it was no different than with anyone else.

"If you recruit in the right way and develop kids and they … are immersed in your mission not just as a program but as a university, that situation presents itself with regularity," she said. "And I don't necessarily differentiate between one year and another. … I think when you go through the development process with kids and watch them grow, it's always a little bit difficult to let them go."

That might seem a slightly cold and impersonal answer from a coach who typically would never be described by those two adjectives. But in fact it might just be Coale's best method of fighting the debilitating angst that can come over players and coaches when they feel time is running out on a quest.

Courtney and Ashley Paris came to Oklahoma from Piedmont, Calif., thinking they would win a national championship. Or go to a Final Four at the least. But that has not happened in their first three seasons.

"I feel a sense of urgency," Ashley acknowledged, "and it's kind of scary."

In 2006, Stanford stopped Oklahoma in the Sweet 16. The next season, in the same round, it was Ole Miss. Last year, with a trip back home to the Oklahoma City Regional awaiting, Notre Dame upset the Sooners in overtime in the second round.

"We didn't take care of our business," Courtney said of the loss to the Irish. "Sometimes you can kind of feel sorry for yourself and feel sad. But it wasn't even one of those situations. It was more like, 'We didn't even deserve this.'"

[Courtney Paris is] the hardest player to guard in our league, and one of the hardest I've ever seen. There's nothing you can do to her when she gets position on the block. You can't move her. ... She's been good for the sport, and our league. She's articulate, humble and talented.

---- Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly

Fans still turned out to make Oklahoma City the best-attended regional, and that had to make Coale proud. But sitting there watching it was tortuous for her.

"I talk to Sherri a lot, and I know she was … I don't want to say in a state of depression, but pretty darn close," said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, one of Coale's closer friends among colleagues. "The only thing I told her was, 'Don't let it get you too much, because you've got another shot at it.'

"If that game with Notre Dame [had been] the last game she had with the twins, I don't know how you handle that. It's hard. Those two have changed her life. I know that feeling you have with special players. As a coach, you want more than anything for them to have the fairy-tale ending."

Texas coach Gail Goestenkors went through that with her most accomplished player at Duke, Alana Beard. The Blue Devils went to the Final Four twice during Beard's career but lost in the semifinals both times. Her senior season ended with an Elite Eight loss to Minnesota.

"It's a delicate balance, and I learned that with Alana," Goestenkors said, reflecting back on her thoughts and emotions during Beard's last season. "We both wanted it so much and were so passionate about it. We wanted to win for each other. But in the process we both put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

"I tried to learn from that and help the seniors who came after that to really enjoy the journey and make it more about that. Because you put so much pressure on yourself to win the NCAA tournament you don't enjoy the entire season."

Coale and the Paris twins are kindred spirits in the depth of their appreciation for their everyday surroundings, their relationships with people and the bittersweet passage of time. All of those things make for wonderful conversations, which no doubt all three will have the rest of their lives.

But it's not what you need to have on your mind when you take the basketball court, and Coale knows that. So do Courtney and Ashley. Still, they all know what the big picture looks like.

"I want to make sure we go further this year, to give something back to the university," Courtney said. "It seems like I've been through a lot here, but at the same time, it's gone by fast. I've met so many different people, and I've been on different types of teams."

The type of team that Oklahoma had last year was never quite cohesive enough until it was too late.

"We were absolutely not good together," Coale said. "Our guys had to go, 'OK, it's not enough to be good. Not in this day and age with what we're trying to do.' You've got to find a way to be great, and the way we do that is to make each other better. That's the beauty of team sports. But when you don't get it right, it's the ugliest, most difficult thing to swallow.

Courtney Paris and Sherri Coale
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiCourtney Paris and coach Sherri Coale envisioned a Final Four. Now, they've got one more season together to make it happen.

"Last year was probably the low of lows for all of us. But our seniors having the varied experiences they've had for three years puts us in the best possible position to make this the season we want it to be."

The 6-foot-4 Courtney, of course, has been like a force of nature in terms of the numbers she has piled up at OU. Heading into this season, she had tallied 2,141 points and 1,531 rebounds, with 97 double-doubles.

"She's the hardest player to guard in our league, and one of the hardest I've ever seen," Fennelly said. "There's nothing you can do to her when she gets position on the block. You can't move her. She's turned into a decent defensive player because she'll block your shot and she covers up space.

"She's been good for the sport, and our league. She's articulate, humble and talented. And I'm sure it's been fun for her and her family to see Ashley's development, too. She's not just Courtney's sister anymore."

Indeed, last year, the 6-3 Ashley began to emerge individually, boosting her scoring average from 7.4 as a sophomore to 11.3. And now she's in the best shape of her college career.

"I'm very confident with my all-around shooting game," Ashley said. "And I think as a team, our chemistry is really good both on and off the court."

Chemistry might be hard to define and measure, but 3-point shooting success isn't. And that's also something the Sooners need to be better at than last season, when they shot 28 percent from behind the arc.

OU's top 3-point shooter from 2007-08, Jenna Plumley, transferred to Lamar after being suspended by Coale following an alleged shoplifting incident over the summer. However, freshman Whitney Hand joins players such as sophomores Danielle Robinson, Carlee Roethlisberger and Jenny Vining in providing what Coale hopes will be a more effective perimeter game.

The Sooners simply must have that if the Paris twins are going to have a realistic shot at an NCAA title this year. They will feel a very keen sense of disappointment if it doesn't happen. And yet both talk about the good of coming to Oklahoma that has nothing to do with whether they even come close to winning it all.

"If I base my whole career on that, I'd be a very unhappy person," Ashley said. "I feel I've developed as a woman, a student, a friend, a sister. … In every aspect of my life, I've grown here."

Courtney echoes similar thoughts about the benefits of spending these four crucial years of their lives in the Sooner State.

"I think Oklahomans are the nicest people ever," Courtney said. "People who take time to stop and say, 'How are you doing?' And they really mean it. They really want to know. Where I came from in California, we are more fast-paced. We say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' and get in our car and drive off, you know?

"Just to become a little more personal and take time to care about people, that's been one of the neatest things about being here. If I hadn't come to school here, I probably wouldn't have come here for any other reason. So I'm glad I did and I've met the people I've met."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.