Paris subpar, but OU still tops Summitt
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was a night when one historic mark was delayed for Tennessee and another ended for Oklahoma. When OU showed it has what it takes to earn a trip to the Final Four, but Tennessee displayed how different this season's young, still-trying-to-figure-it-out team is from the experienced group that played on this same Ford Center court last spring.
"I thought it was a fantastic atmosphere for women's college basketball," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.
Hallelujah that for Big Monday, we got an entertaining, fast-paced game that had its nail-biter element. Even if that drama wasn't about who was going to win.
That was pretty clear even midway through the second half of second-ranked Oklahoma's 80-70 victory over No. 15 Tennessee. The Sooners maintained a double-digit lead for the last eight minutes of the game, denying Tennessee coach Pat Summitt her 1,000th career win.
Summitt is frustrated that her team sometimes plays with purpose and sometimes does not. Last season's Candace Parker-led group -- which started five seniors -- won its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in this arena. But this squad, which is so reliant on freshmen, is now 16-5, with the postseason being just a distant worry. There are more immediate things to fret about.
"We are a long way from being a 40-minute team," said Summitt, whose next crack at the four-digit career victory mark will come at home Thursday against Georgia. "We're a long way from understanding what ball security means. Hopefully, a lesson will be learned. It's not like this hasn't been a pattern for us. So that does concern me."
However, the 1,000 milestone doesn't.
"No, trust me, I'm not concerned about a number for me," she said. "I'm concerned about this basketball team investing in our system and not picking and choosing when they want to play hard."
But speaking of milestones for Oklahoma senior center Courtney Paris, her double-double streak actually had become a millstone. Which is understandable. You see this in all sports -- a streak of any significant length can start to take on a burdensome life of its own.
Paris was in some foul trouble in the first half Monday, and after that, she never quite found her rhythm. She made just 4 of 12 shots from the field, 1 of 2 from the line and fouled out with 41 seconds left, having scored nine points.
She did have 12 rebounds, but for the first time since Dec. 3, 2005, there was no double-double for Paris. That streak ended at 112, while her string of 120 games in double figures also came to an end. Bryan Enterline, the referee who called the last foul on Paris, would have been voted the least-popular person in Oklahoma if a poll had been taken after the game.
But the end of the streak really came down to the best thing Tennessee did all night: Play defense on Paris. (Although one of the keys to that, Vicki Baugh, hurt her oft-injured knee late in the game and left the court.)
The other thing that perhaps got to Paris, besides Tennessee's defense, was her own nerves as the potential end of the streak loomed large as the minutes ticked away. The bright side is she doesn't have to worry about it anymore. Paris said she told one of her teammates in the locker room that, in many ways, it was a relief.
"I just feel like free," she said. "Like there's so much pressure off."
No one will be surprised, in fact, if Paris now plays even better the rest of this season. It can be weird how it works that way, but it often does.
The amazing thing isn't that Paris' streak ended on one of the best overall nights the Sooners program has had during her career -- beating the defending NCAA champions on national television in front of 12,552 fans.
No, the amazing thing is how a game like this didn't happen for so long since a 22-point, 24-rebound performance against UCLA on Dec. 5, 2005.
In this game, there was a little foul trouble mixed in with very solid post defense and a case of her missing a few chip shots. Those things plague even the best of players, but Paris had avoided letting them affect her offense to this degree for more than three years.
The crowd, which pumped up the Sooners all night, was loudest when Paris went to the bench after fouling out. That's what prompted so much emotion in her: the fans' appreciative cheers.
"Let me just tell you how I felt when it ended -- it's just overwhelming," Paris said afterward, then apologized (needlessly) for shedding some tears. "I came here and I wanted to win a national championship. In the midst of it, I've gotten the streak, I've had scoring records and did these other things.
"And tonight, I wish I would have played better. But I realized we have all the tools we need to do what I really wanted to do. Tonight, I didn't play the way I wanted to, but we won handily. I'm just so excited about the future of our team."
Indeed, the Sooners' postseason potential was highlighted by the fact that the scoring load was carried by four other players in double figures. Freshman Whitney Hand had (no, we will not say "the hot hand") OK, yes we will. She shot 8-for-9 from the field for 20 points.
Ashley Paris had 19 points, making 7 of 10 shots. Nyeshia Stevenson had 11 points and four assists. And Danielle Robinson was the show-stealer, getting 17 points and 12 assists -- some of those dishes so darn pretty, you just couldn't get worked up about her eight turnovers.
"What is pure Danielle Robinson is that accelerated speed," Coale said. "That first step. Where she's really improved is how to control what happens after that. She made some beautiful passes, and when they're not available, she finishes."
Robinson, a sophomore, and Hand, a freshman, earned praise from Coale for their poise, but so did the Paris twins for helping the youngsters with that.
The sisters have meant so much to this OU program, but it was very evident Monday night how much they mean to each other, too. Ashley was asked about the end of her sister's streak, and her answer -- as tears streamed down her cheeks -- was one of those beautiful moments you sometimes experience in covering sports.
"I'm physically the closest thing to Courtney because we share the same DNA," Ashley said. "I've been trying to get to four double-doubles. I lost over 30 pounds [during the summer] for the goal of getting a double-double every game. And I can't do it.
"So I know how hard it is to do that. And I'm so proud. I'm proud to have [Paris] as my last name. It's unbelievable what she has done."
Coale took stock of the whole evening: the big and enthusiastic crowd watching a legendary coach on one side, and a player with a mind-boggling streak of success on the other side.
"I told our guys in the locker room, 'We're all going to wake up some day and look around and go, 'Wow, she was on our team!'" Coale said of Courtney Paris. "I've been comparing [Summitt's win total] to Courtney's streak. In that they're both incomprehensible. While they are active, you can't even really appreciate it the way it deserves. I don't know that anyone will ever broach either one of those."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.