OU's Paris getting plenty of help from supporting cast

12/4/2006 - Oklahoma Sooners


By Graham Hays, ESPN.com

Erin Higgins, left, Courtney Paris

Erin Higgins, left, and the Sooners' outside shooting help open up things inside for OU star Courtney Paris. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is the land of leading ladies, a town where Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron rule the roost. In other words, it was a perfect stage for Courtney Paris to show off why she's literally and potentially figuratively the biggest star taking curtain calls in women's college basketball this season.

So it was a little surprising to walk away from Oklahoma's game last week against UCLA in Tinsel Town, or at least nearby Westwood, marveling at the subtle performances of Paris' supporting cast. Then again, a solitary star might pave the way for big box-office numbers, but the movies that stand the test of time are the ones with depth and nuance.

Of course, it never hurts to throw in a barrage of 3-pointers, the basketball equivalent of a really good car chase.

Paris did her part as the Sooners scored a 77-68 win on the road, scoring 24 points and hauling in 17 rebounds, but seniors Erin Higgins, Leah Rush and Chelsi Welch combined for 37 points and nine 3-pointers. Time and again, UCLA's attempts to rally were quelled by a momentum-killing shot from behind the arc from someone in a red jersey.

"We take pride in it, because that's what we need; that's what helps Courtney out, too," Higgins said of the outside shooting. "Courtney doesn't score 40-some odd points if she doesn't have people around her outside that people have to guard."

Welch, who scored 13 against the Bruins, was key in Oklahoma's other notable win of the regular season's opening fortnight, pouring in 23 against DePaul on Nov. 12. Rush also has been steady throughout, scoring 11 against DePaul and 15 against UCLA. But a three-part harmony doesn't sound quite right with two voices, and Higgins' stroke was out of tune in the first three games as she hit just 2-of-15 attempts from behind the arc.

"I don't know why, but for some reason I'll probably go through a slump once a year, and I always tell myself when I go through it, I'd rather go through it at the beginning of the year than the end," Higgins said.

On a roster increasingly dotted with the best talent the nation has to offer, stretching from California for the Paris twins -- Courtney's sister, Ashley, is also in her second season -- to Chicago for freshman standout Amanda Thompson, Higgins and Britney Brown are the most notable native daughters playing in Norman. And Higgins, like her coach, is quintessential Oklahoma, with a plainspoken confidence that's offset by a dry humor.

Then again, it's easy to poke a little fun at yourself when you just hit three 3-pointers on the road against a ranked team.

"The first one that went in, I was like, 'Oh, maybe it was a fluke, don't get too excited,' " Higgins said with the audible equivalent of a wink. "And then the second went in. But it's easy to lose confidence when your shot doesn't go in, but it's not as easy to lose it when your coaches and your teammates keep telling you to shoot the ball."

And with five steals in the opening four games, Higgins didn't let her shooting slump stop her from making a contribution.

"It's one of those things, you just kind of take it with a grain of salt," Higgins said. "You realize, my shot's not going in, I've got to figure out some other way to help -- I've got to rebound, I've got to play defense, I've got to make good passes.

"When you do those things, it kind of takes your mind off it, and that's how you get back in your rhythm and get out of that slump."

Oklahoma shot the long ball extremely well last season, hitting 34.8 percent from behind the arc, including Higgins' team-leading 88 3-pointers at a 41.1 percent clip. And yet the Sooners still came up short of the Final Four trip many expected them to make. But more than exposing Oklahoma's inside-outside game as a flawed postseason blueprint, the Sweet 16 loss to Stanford, in what easily could have been a national semifinal given the talent on the floor, might have revealed that the Sooners just got a little too far ahead of schedule last year.

"What I'm excited about is we kind of started from a different point this year," Higgins said. "Last year, we didn't really know how to play with Courtney. We'd just kind of throw it in there and watch her and be like, 'Wow, that's interesting.' Now we started at a spot where we learned how to play with her last year and we're building on that."

Just as importantly, they've added Thompson to the mix. A rangy and athletic forward, Thompson has scored between eight and 11 points in all four Oklahoma games. She gives the Sooners an option in the space between the Paris twins and the shooters arrayed on the perimeter.

As Higgins was quick to point out, the Sooners aren't patting themselves on the back about their early performances, instead focusing on the carelessness that has produced at least 18 turnovers in three of four games this season, including 24 against a UCLA team that was long on defense but didn't generate a lot of pressure from its backcourt.

With a schedule that is decidedly soft for the next three weeks (although an intrastate game against Jillian Robbins and Tulsa could be interesting), the Sooners should have time to work on their blemishes before starting a three-game home stand on Dec. 20 that will bring No. 6 Ohio State and New Mexico to town before Kansas State arrives to open conference play.

And if Higgins, Welch and Rush shoot their way to supporting roles the equal of anything Paul Giamatti, Todd Louiso and Michael Weston have offered up on the big screen, the Sooners might just take the next step in March.

"Yeah, you do, you really do," Higgins said when asked if there are times when it feels like the Sooners can only beat themselves if things are going right. "Courtney on the inside, I don't want to say she's unstoppable, but when she gets her mind going and she gets set in one thing she wants to do, it's going to be hard to stop her. And if we're hitting outside shots, that makes it harder for the defense to double, which means she's going to be in single coverage. And it's kind of hard to guard Courtney in single coverage."

See, the star always steals the final scene.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.