LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
But first, tonight, two relative newcomers to the women's Final Four, Louisville and Oklahoma will square off. Louisville is making its first appearance ever in the semifinals. Oklahoma lost to Connecticut in the championship game of 2002.
As Greg Echlin reports from St. Louis, this year's Sooner's team not only carries a 32 and 4 record into the semis, but an unprecedented promise by their star player.
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GREG ECHLIN: At Lloyd Noble Center where the Oklahoma Sooners play their home games, interest has never been higher. Though the Sooners reached the title game seven years ago, they didn't have a player who moved their program forward like six-foot-three senior Courtney Paris and her twin sister Ashley. Courtney set 18 NCAA records and became the first in women's college basketball to be named Associated Press All-American all four years.
But it's what she said at her last home game that shook up the basketball world. She announced to the home crowd she would give her scholarship money back to the university if the Sooners did not win the national championship this season. She says it was an unscripted moment.
Ms. COURTNEY PARIS (Women's Basketball, University of Oklahoma): I thought about it before. I thought about that just before, but did I think I would go out there and tell them that? I didn't have anything planned to say that night, but just something I felt appropriate to say.
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ECHLIN: The Sooners held practice yesterday on a bigger stage. They were at the Scotttrade Center in St. Louis, the site of the women's Final Four. The Paris twins are the daughters of Bubba Paris, who won three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. Ashley Paris says rarely does her sister Courtney keep anything from her, though she admits being caught off guard by Courtney's pledge.
Ms. ASHLEY PARIS (Women's Basketball, University of Oklahoma): Yeah, pretty much, I mean, we're twins, we're sisters, we're best buds and, yeah, we can talk to each other about anything.
ECHLIN: Ashley says, while many on the team were also stunned, they took it on as a challenge.
Ms. A. PARIS: It just really motivated us. And just to see her belief and what she was willing to put on the line, it just really made all of us feel better about the situation.
ECHLIN: ESPN commentator, Carolyn Peck coached Purdue to a national championship 10 years ago. When she first heard what Courtney Paris said, Peck was skeptical.
Ms. CAROLYN PECK (Commentator, ESPN): You know, I was concerned at the beginning of it that it would be too much of a distraction or too much to handle for the younger players. But, man, after watching them in the Elite Eight game, you can totally tell that that group has embraced it.
ECHLIN: In the three previous seasons of the Paris twins' era, the team has won two Big 12 Conference titles and competed in the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. But it never got this far. With her collegiate career about to end, Courtney Paris doesn't shy away from the challenge of winning a national championship.
Ms. C. PARIS: It's time, you know. I don't have next year. This is the last, you know, chance in my career to do this, and I want to take accountability for that. I didn't come to Oklahoma just to be an all-American or do all those things. I came to help my team compete for a national championship. And I feel like it's my duty to get that done.
ECHLIN: Gloria Nevarez, the senior associate athletics director for Oklahoma and a newcomer with the Sooners, says home attendance has doubled since the arrival of the Paris twins. While a four-year athletics scholarship at OU is worth about $64,000, Nevarez says the Sooners are not considering themselves with the prospect of Paris paying back her scholarship money.
Ms. GLORIA NEVAREZ (Senior Associate Athletics Director, Oklahoma University): People needed a dollar figure to hover around, but I - what she's given back already and what she's going to give back, just in coming back for appearances and talking about the program and being associated with the program, is going to pay off more so than any dollar figures that anyone could throw out. So, I mean, as far as Oklahoma is concerned, we're square.
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ECHLIN: Courtney and Ashley Paris have brought considerable notoriety to the women's basketball program at Oklahoma. But now that they've made it to the Final Four, they desperately don't want to fall short of their goal to win the national championship.
For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin in St. Louis.
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