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Posted: Wednesday March 18, 2009 12:07PM; Updated: Wednesday March 18, 2009 12:07PM
Kelli Anderson Kelli Anderson >
AT THE TOURNEY

Put Up or Pay Up

Connecticut may be a prohibitive favorite, but Oklahoma's star is putting her money on the Sooners

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courtney-paris.jpg
Courtney Paris (3) can carry a team, but she'll need help from Hand (25) and Co. to make good on her guarantee.
Darryl Bush/AP

The women's NCAA tournament got some unexpected spice at Oklahoma's Senior Night on March 4. That's when Courtney Paris, the Sooners' 6' 4" senior superstar, took the microphone and announced to the assembled crowd of 9,310 and her startled teammates that Oklahoma would win the national title this year, guaranteed, or she'd pay back her scholarship, worth about $64,000. "I stand by what I said," says Paris, the alltime rebounding (1,970) and double doubles (125) leader in Division I. "Winning a national title is what I came here to do, and I believe we have a chance to do it."

In a season in which 33-0 Connecticut has destroyed opponents by an average of nearly 32 points a game (the Huskies trounced the Sooners by 28 back in November) this is bold talk. But is it crazy talk?

Not necessarily. For one thing, thanks to the Huskies, the fourth-ranked Sooners (28-4, 15-1 in the Big 12) discovered their flaws early. "I don't think there's any way we'd have done what we did in conference play had we not gone to Storrs and gotten it handed to us," says coach Sherri Coale. "It got our attention: [We learned that] this is the best team in the country, and right now we're not nearly as good as they are. But we can do this and this and this and get a whole lot closer to that by March."

How much closer are they? Only an NCAA tournament rematch which would come at the Final Four in St. Louis will tell, but here's what we know now: The Sooners' powerful post game, anchored by Paris (who averages 16.4 points and 13.7 rebounds per game), has been even better since her talented twin, Ashley (12.7 points, 9.5 rebounds), dropped 25 pounds and vastly improved her conditioning last summer. "Ashley's ability and willingness to run on every play has changed us dramatically," says Coale. "Now, in transition on offense, we have [a layup threat] that someone has to take away, and on defensive transition she [gets back to] thwart fast breaks."

Even more critical to the Sooners' success this year is an improved backcourt. Point guard Danielle Robinson, a 5' 9" sophomore with what Coale calls "ludicrous" speed, has become a savvy on-court leader and is now an asset rather than a liability at the free throw line, where she has improved to 90.4% (up from 68.7% last season). Big 12 Freshman of the Year Whitney Hand (8.5 points per game), who has a pregame routine of writing Bible verses on her left hand and supergluing shut the blisters on her shooting hand, provides a calming presence and a reliable perimeter threat. Amanda Thompson, a 6-foot junior forward known as the Waitress because of her humble and reliable service (precision passing, emphatic rebounding, lockdown defense), rounds out the starting five, while Big 12 co-Sixth Man of the Year Nyeshia Stevenson, a 5' 9" guard who hits a team-best 40.7% from beyond the arc, leads a deep bench that contributes 18.9 points a game.

Award-winning personnel aside, the Sooners can claim something the Huskies can't: They have been tested. Two weeks after the smackdown in Storrs, Cal had Oklahoma down by 26 at the half in San Jose. But in the greatest regulation rally in NCAA history, the Sooners stormed back to win 86-75. "That game gave us confidence that we could come back from anything," says Thompson.

Even when Hand broke her left index finger on Feb. 21, the Sooners found a silver lining. "We had to learn to manufacture rhythm," says Coale. "That's like finding a muscle you didn't know you had." Oklahoma went 3-1 in the games Hand missed, but she's still finding her stroke: She has missed her last 18 three-pointers and all five shots she took in Oklahoma's 74-62 loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament semifinal.

As for chemistry, Coale realized this group had it in abundance during a bus ride to the Waco airport after a win over Baylor in late January, when the whole team started singing the national anthem. "They had decided to all sing it together for Senior Night as a sign of unity," says Coale. "I told them to keep practicing!"

The team's musical performance on Senior Night won't earn it any trophies "Everyone was off-key," laughs Thompson but maybe Paris's challenge to her team will. "I was pretty shocked when she said it, but it will make everybody step up their game," says Thompson. "And it's going to make the tournament a little more exciting."

 
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