<
>

Paris so much more than a promise

Paris is the only player, male or female, to compile 2,500 points and 2,000 rebounds. AP Photo/Donna McWilliam

ST. LOUIS -- Oklahoma center Courtney Paris stood up to deliver a collective message of gratitude on behalf of her fellow State Farm All-Americans on Saturday. And she slipped in a little joke.

"I have no guarantees for you guys," Paris said, poking fun at her senior-night promise to Sooners fans to win a national championship or repay her scholarship.

This will tell you who the real Paris is, and how much she's liked by those in the sport. Even the very people who might stand in her way have her back about a statement that Paris meant as a devotional pledge, not a cocky guarantee.

"I told her I loved it," Stanford center Jayne Appel said. "I loved every bit of it. It came from her heart for the fans. And she was trying to fuel her team to get extra motivation: 'Hey, I'm putting this on the line, so let's go out and put ourselves on the line.'"

Appel also joked that if needed, she'd help Paris pay the debt.

"I did tell her that if she faces us, I'd slip her $5 at the end of the game," Appel said, grinning. "But, honestly, I think it's great. It brings more media coverage to women's basketball. I'm in full support of it."

Similarly, UConn's Renee Montgomery, also a senior trying to win an NCAA title for the first time, said, "I didn't take what she said badly at all. The way I took it was she wanted to tell her fans and her team she has enough confidence that they're going to win. I think some people took it out of proportion. I just think she showed confidence in her program and her team."

And an interested observer at the State Farm presentation offered her thoughts on Paris.

"I understand where she's coming from when she said it," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who went to the Final Four three times as a player with Virginia but didn't win a title. "If you know Courtney, she's not the type of kid who said this to throw it in somebody's face. I take my hat off to her for saying it. It's truly how she felt, and it came from a place of innocence and competitiveness."

For the record, Oklahoma's administration and coach Sherri Coale have already said Paris has fully earned every penny of her scholarship, and that they essentially won't let her pay back the roughly $64,000 scholarship if OU doesn't hoist the trophy Tuesday.

However, win or lose here at the Final Four, Paris could one day "pay it forward" in contributing financially to Oklahoma women's athletics. She understands the value of that keenly, thanks to the way Coale set up the scholarship-endowment program at OU.

All of the program's 15 scholarships are endowed -- a big accomplishment in this sport -- and each recipient gets to know the background of the donors, plus knows who had the scholarship before she did.

Someday at OU, the Jimmie Austin Scholarship line will be several players removed from Paris. But whomever is playing for the crimson and cream then will know very well who Paris was.

She's the one whose name is all over the NCAA, Big 12 and Oklahoma record books. Paris has set so many marks that it could be someone's term paper to try to chronicle all of them.

The least likely marks to ever be touched are her 127 career double-doubles and her double-double streak of 112 games, which ended this February. Then there's this: No other player of either gender or any division except Paris has compiled more than 2,500 points and 2,000 rebounds.

When you ask Paris how she would like to be thought of some day when people recall her career, she was succinct.

"Individually? Consistent," she said. "As a member of this team? As a national champion."

There are two huge hurdles left if the latter is to come true. The Sooners will have to get past a Louisville team that blazed through the Raleigh Regional and is playing with a huge amount of confidence.

If OU does that, it will match the program's previous high of reaching the national championship game, which it did in 2002. But then it would take another victory, over UConn or Stanford, to win it all.

That 2002 Final Four appearance definitely opened recruiting doors for Coale. Courtney said it didn't directly result in her and twin Ashley wanting to go to Oklahoma, but it did contribute to it.

"I watched that game [against UConn in 2002]," Paris said. "But because I'm from California, I really wasn't exposed to everything that went along with it. But I do say this: Once [Oklahoma] became one of the schools I was looking at, a thing that turned me on to them was they had been there before and had the resources to do it again."

Paris came roaring into the Big 12 in 2005-06, a force from her first game.

"I'm a confident player, and I came into college wanting to be an impact player right away," she said. "If anything, my numbers are a reflection of that. The frustrating thing was, no matter what I did, we weren't sitting in this locker room at a Final Four. And now we are."

It took getting through disappointments to make it, though. A Sweet 16 loss to Stanford in 2006. Another defeat in the Sweet 16 in 2007, this time to Mississippi. A 2008 season in which the Sooners were upset by the last-place team in the league, Missouri, in the Big 12 tournament and then upset in the NCAA tournament by Notre Dame.

That loss prevented OU from going to the Oklahoma City Regional in the first of two years that event was held at the Ford Center.

"It was the most frustrating [season]," Paris said of 2008. "But I don't feel like we had all the pieces together or the experience or chemistry. But at the same time, I appreciate that year because it's a huge reason why we are the way we are now."

This season, Paris led the Sooners to the Big 12 regular-season title. But foul trouble against Texas A&M disrupted her and contributed to a loss in the league tournament.

Still, the Sooners got a No. 1 seed and lived up to it -- despite needing to rally in the second half of their Elite Eight matchup with Purdue.

"I thought [that] was vintage Courtney Paris," Coale said of the final 20 minutes of the game that launched the Sooners toward St. Louis. "Who gets a double-double almost every night of their entire college career? But she does have hills and valleys like everybody else. Just her valleys don't sweep quite as deeply as some of ours do sometimes.

"What you saw in the second half was what has defined Courtney throughout her career: will, passion, energy, explosiveness. And I thought she really controlled the real estate right around the rim."

That's something Paris has done her whole career. But she thinks her improvement as a player has come in the areas that don't involve just owning the low block.

"The biggest thing is my understanding of basketball, and the most tangible way to see that is just all the turnovers I used to have out of the double-team trap," Paris said. "It was because I didn't understand what everyone else was doing or where they needed to be and where I needed to be looking. My understanding for what good offense looks like has changed a lot."

Ashley agrees, "I think she's learned how to make people around her better, to really embrace and lead the team. No matter what, when she first got here, she was grabbing 15 rebounds and getting 20 points. She's always going to be productive. But she really helped our team's basketball smarts."

By the way, Ashley actually more than held her own on senior night in Norman, Okla., too. She showed how much she has developed self confidence, blossoming from a rather shy teen to a more outgoing person who cracked up the OU crowed with her funny, animated farewell speech.

Ashley always jokes when asked about supposedly being in Courtney's shadow that "most of the world" plays in Courtney's shadow. So Ashley had to figure that Courtney would eclipse her on senior night, even without planning to.

Thus came Courtney's promise to win it all, her belief that without a title, she had not fulfilled her obligation to Oklahoma.

"It wasn't a planned thing," Ashley said of her reaction to hearing it. "It was just what she was feeling at that time. She was caught up in the moment and said what was on her mind and heart. It was exciting. She's a great player, and she believes in us. It motivated us. What Courtney said just more establishes that belief we have in each other."

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