Commentary

Paris twins, OU push past Purdue

Sooners earn second Final Four appearance, will face Louisville on Sunday

Originally Published: March 31, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Courtney Paris tried to keep it just like any old, regular game day. Sure, it might have been the last one of her college career, but no sense sitting around freaking out about that possibility.

This capital city buzzed with anticipation of No. 1 seed Oklahoma playing No. 6 Purdue for a spot in the Women's Final Four on Tuesday night, but Paris stayed calm.

"We had breakfast, went to film," she said. "Did our shootaround. Went to the mall."

Courtney Paris
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiRegional MVP Courtney Paris had 19 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks, and Whitney Hand added nine points, seven rebounds.

Did she do any shopping?

"Ashley used to be the big saver, and she's turned into the shopper," Paris said of her twin and Sooners teammate. "I used to be the big shopper, and I've turned into the saver."

OK, sure, time to insert the lame joke about Courtney needing to save now just in case she has to pay back the scholarship, right? Paris' heartfelt message on senior night was meant to let OU fans know that she thought she would not be living up to her end of the bargain if she didn't help the program win a national championship.

But her pledge captured attention coast-to-coast, and even people who didn't know anything about women's basketball were saying, "Did you hear about that Oklahoma player and her scholarship?"

Well, now they'll have the chance to see Paris continue her quest for an NCAA title in St. Louis, after the Sooners held off a Purdue team that was about as hard to remove from this tournament as a cherry Kool-Aid stain is from a white rug.

Oklahoma won 74-68 before 11,529 Ford Center fans, who probably at times sounded like 100,000 fans to the Boilermakers. Talk about being in enemy territory. Purdue had upset third-seeded North Carolina in the second round, then eliminated on-a-roll Rutgers in the Sweet 16.

The Boilers' reward for all that was taking on the beloved Sooners in their backyard. But rather than get rattled, Purdue pushed Oklahoma to the buzzer. Not that this is surprising. Is there any other program in women's college hoops quite like Purdue?

The Boilermakers have had five coaches in the last 14 years, so their success in that time can't be attributed to just one person who has built and maintained the program, as is the case at most other schools who reach this level.

What has made Purdue the power it is, though, is consistency of another kind: with players. As in, getting so many of the best from the state of Indiana to come to Purdue. The high school and AAU programs there have nurtured a lot of talent, and Purdue has benefited no matter who the coach was.

It's pretty likely the Boilers' mentor now, Purdue alum Sharon Versyp, will stay in that role for a long time. On Wednesday, she almost led the program to its fourth Final Four.

But standing in Purdue's way were Courtney and Ashley Paris, the seniors who left the Bay area, came to the Midwest and have become Sooners legends. But they had plenty of help Tuesday -- and they've always been the first to say they needed that.

Courtney and Ashley didn't arrive in Norman, Okla., four years ago touting themselves as saviors. They came in knowing they would be pieces to a puzzle. Admittedly, if it was a 1,500-piece puzzle, Courtney by herself and at her best is at least 900 of those pieces. However, it couldn't just be about her for OU to get where she wanted to go.

Further, no matter how many records she broke or how long her double-double streak was, Courtney never wanted the spotlight on her. She wanted it on Oklahoma. Some thought she was singling herself out with the scholarship statement, and it's understandable why it might appear that way if you didn't really know her.

But anyone who thinks Courtney is focused on herself wasn't there in 2006 or 2007 to see that the person who took it the hardest after the Sooners' Sweet 16 losses wasn't the program's seniors, but Courtney, then still an underclassman.

One of those former players, 2007 grad Leah Rush, was at the Ford Center on Tuesday night. So was the point guard for OU's first Final Four team, Stacey Dales. There were other former Sooners present, too, and it's their legacy that the Paris sisters both take so seriously.

Oklahoma has all 15 of its women's basketball scholarships endowed, one of very few programs to have accomplished something like that.

"It's so impressive," Courtney said. "I remember the year we committed [to OU] was the year they started doing those endowments. I thought, 'How cool is that?' That was a special thing to me."

Now does it make more sense, the whole "pay-back-the-scholarship" thing? Doesn't that put it more into context? Courtney knows who endowed her scholarship. She'll always know who will be awarded it after she leaves. That's the kind of responsibility link that coach Sherri Coale has created.

Danielle Robinson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiWith Oklahoma trailing by five points at halftime, point guard Danielle Robinson's 17 second-half points (23 overall) were huge.

Courtney didn't take all that wholly on her shoulders going into Tuesday's game, though. As stated, she tried to be "normal" all day. She did need some new clothes for the various awards banquets she'll be going to, so she took care of some of that at the mall.

The clock ticked a little slowly up until the 8 p.m. local time tip-off, but then it was time to get to work.

The first 20 minutes of the game, though, a lot did not work for the Sooners. They shot 23.5 percent from the field, and trailed 27-22 at halftime.

"We came out in the first half and were missing shots we could have made; we were rushing on everything," Paris said. "We were playing good defense, though. We knew we could control our offense better. We tried to play together and piece it back together, and it worked out."

Several Sooners had a part in it, too. Courtney, named regional MVP, had 19 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks and a particular fire in her eye all of the second half. Ashley had nine points and seven rebounds. Point guard Danielle Robinson finished with 23 points after scoring just six in the first half.

Freshman energy source Whitney Hand had nine points and seven rebounds. And a very key contribution came from Amanda Thompson, who has been limited by injury yet played 12 minutes Tuesday. She had five points and helped solidify the Sooners' defense.

The OU faithful had to sweat through Purdue's tenacity, as the Boilermakers went 31-of-34 from the foul line. But in the end, Oklahoma had too much, and the Sooners are headed to St. Louis.

It was very happy, of course, but not crazy in the Sooners' locker room after the game. They've made it to the Final Four, but that's just part of the goal.

Obviously, they know UConn is out there undefeated. And that Stanford steamrolled their fellow Big 12 school, Iowa State, in the Berkeley Regional final. And that Louisville, their next opponent, already took out one No. 1 seed in Maryland.

For Tuesday night, though, the Sooners could celebrate. Coale, always eloquent, said, "Sometimes, it's going through the valley that makes standing on the mountaintop worth it."

The Paris twins have been through their valleys, the worst of which was falling in the second round last year to Notre Dame and not making it to the regional here in Oklahoma City. But Courtney said she was determined not to let the weight of "needing" to get to a Final Four drag her down this season.

"That was my No. 1 goal for this year -- not to feel pressured by anything or worry about numbers," she said. "Just enjoy the moment I'm in and the people I'm with. And those things, right there, are what make this twice as good."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.

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

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