OKLAHOMA CITY — Courtney Paris isn’t backing down. She meant what she said.
Moments after Oklahoma clinched the Big 12 Conference regular-season title last week, Paris told a Senior Night crowd that wasn’t the only championship the Sooners would win. She guaranteed that Oklahoma would win the national title or else she’d pay back her scholarship — which could cost her at least $75,000, perhaps more.
Bold words, but as No. 3 Oklahoma (27-3) enters the Big 12 tournament this week as the top seed, Paris doesn’t regret making the guarantee and said it wasn’t a heat-of-the-moment statement.
“I feel like we’re not missing pieces,” she said. “If we play hard, we execute, we are a great team that can win the national championship. If we don’t do that, it won’t be because we’re not good enough.
“So when you’re good enough and don’t do something, then you have to take accountability for that, and that’s your own fault. We can win a national championship. If we don’t, I’ll feel like I didn’t earn my scholarship.”
The cauldron of the Big 12 tournament — which will feature six current Top 25 teams, one other that has been ranked and two more harboring NCAA tournament hopes — would seem to be good preparation for what Paris obviously believes will be a long postseason run.
There’s little doubt the Sooners will enjoy a quasi-homecourt advantage at the Cox Convention Center, where they swept to the 2007 Big 12 tournament title before partisan crowds.
Plus, Oklahoma has the added incentive of knowing that a strong conference tournament showing likely will result in the Sooners being placed in the NCAA tournament’s Oklahoma City regional, which would mean they could potentially earn a Final Four berth while playing a half-hour from their Norman campus.
“We feel like we’ve already put ourselves in a great position for that,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “Now we can’t stop playing, but at the same time, if you look at our strength of schedule, one, our RPI, one, we’re No. 3 in the country. I think we’ve done just about all we can do.”
Oklahoma isn’t the only Big 12 team angling to secure a high NCAA tournament seed. No. 7 Baylor (24-5) likely will be without its leading scorer and rebounder, Danielle Wilson, who suffered a knee injury on Feb. 28 and hasn’t played since.
Still, in her absence, the Bears beat No. 10 Texas A&M to close the regular season.
Texas A&M (23-6) won the Big 12 tournament and came through the Oklahoma City regional last season before falling to eventual national champion Tennessee in the round of eight. What the Aggies lack in height, they make up for in scrappiness, especially with tested veterans like Takia Starks and Danielle Gant, who will play in her hometown.
The Aggies also dealt Oklahoma its only conference loss, winning 57-56 in College Station on Feb. 23.
No. 18 Iowa State (23-7), the 2007 Big 12 tournament runner-up, is seeded third this year and has won four straight after a stretch in which the Cyclones lost three of four games. No. 23 Texas (20-10) enters the tournament having lost three straight and five of its last six, but the Longhorns could be dangerous, owning wins at Baylor and Iowa State.
And with star point guard Shalee Lehning, it would be dangerous to discount No. 22 Kansas State (23-6). Lehning has seemingly returned to form after missing three games last month because of mononucleosis, recording her fifth career triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists as the Wildcats beat Colorado 71-61 in the regular-season finale.
Oklahoma State (15-14) imploded down the stretch, losing nine of its last 10 games, but the Cowgirls once were ranked and still have point guard Andrea Riley, the Big 12’s leading scorer.
Kansas (17-12) won four in a row, including a 58-47 win over Iowa State and a 69-45 rout of Baylor, before dropping its season finale. The Jayhawks hope a deep conference tournament run could put them on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Texas Tech (16-14) doesn’t have a glossy record, but does own wins over Texas and Texas A&M and could also make a case for an at-large bid with two or (more likely) three wins.
Last season, eight Big 12 teams made the NCAA field — including Texas, which had a 7-9 conference record — and all won their first-round games. Texas Tech and Kansas this season each went 6-10 in league play.
“I think if the past is predictor of the future, we all feel eight should get in,” Texas Tech coach Kristi Curry said. “Because we’ve beaten up on each other so much, I definitely think you have to take seven.”