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Sally Jenkins on Oklahoma Sooner Courtney Paris's Promise

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By Sally Jenkins
Monday, April 6, 2009

ST. LOUIS

The moment was at hand: Courtney Paris would either be one step closer to delivering on a Joe Namath-like guarantee, or holding a $64,000 tab. Her Oklahoma teammate Nyeshia Stevenson flicked a long, ribboning three-pointer as the seconds ticked to none. The ball settled through the rim, but then spun back and dropped out, flat and useless as a bad penny, at Paris's feet. She'll be saving her coins from now on.

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Making a $64,000 promise wasn't the most prudent act of Paris's career, but when you're 6 feet 4, strong and wide as a doorframe, and a perennial all-American, you figure you can carry it off, and carry your team, too. In a moment of generous emotion, or some would say youthful hubris, Paris guaranteed a national championship for Oklahoma or promised to repay her scholarship. It was a huge, showy gesture, big as the woman herself. The only problem was that she failed to take into account the opponent, in this case a Louisville team led by a hyperkinetic star named Angel McCoughtry, who happens to be the only player in the nation to outscore Paris in career points over the last four years. McCoughtry did it again in their NCAA semifinal Sunday night, with 18 points to Paris's 16, to give Louisville the shot at the championship with a breathless upset of Oklahoma, 61-59.

Whether you found Paris's vow grandiose or stupid, you couldn't fail to sympathize with her as she stood on the court afterward, forthright in defeat, and insisted through tears streaming down her face that she would keep her word . You had to be a little sorry, too, that such a majestic player, the first four-time all-American in the women's game, who also happens to be terrifically intelligent and gracious, had concluded her career. If there was something foolish about such a guarantee, there was also something brave; and by doing it, Paris put herself in the company of Namath, who guaranteed and delivered the 1969 Super Bowl to the New York Jets. Paris wagered something extra, more than most athletes ever do, she placed a stack of responsibility on herself.

"I do make good on the guarantee," she said. "Obviously, I don't have $64,000 waiting. But I do make good on the guarantee."

Paris puts up double-doubles as effortlessly as she breathes, but she had never been able to carry her team into a Final Four until this week. Throughout her career, she had shouldered huge expectations that came with her outsized physique and skill, to win every individual award in the book.

"Most of the time she's going to have a double-double and dominate, and when she doesn't, the whole world knows about it," said her twin sister, Ashley.

But she was sick of finishing seasons with losses, and of showing up at Final Fours by herself to collect individual awards, without her team. In a moment of emotional exuberance on Senior Night, she grabbed a microphone and vowed to win a trophy or give the school a refund. She was unprepared for the swirl of reaction to the remark and the way it got picked up and carried cross-country on the airwaves.

"When I said it I didn't think it would even be a big deal in Oklahoma," she said, "and then a week later it's on the ESPN ticker."

It remained a topic of conversation; she had called the shot, and now everyone wanted to see if she would make it.

"At the end of the day it's not about what everyone else thinks," she said in defense of herself earlier in the week. "It's about my teammates believing in what we're doing and the commitment I have to my school and university."

Initially, Paris and the Sooners seemed to totally overmatch Louisville. They sprinted to a 16-2 lead as the Cardinals, whether because of nerves or the Sooners' swiping defense, couldn't make a shot. McCoughtry was 0 for 7 in the first half, and as a group, the Cardinals missed their first nine. They shot just 22 percent to trail 34-22 at the half.


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