NORMAN, Oklahoma -- With an immovable frame unlike anyone else in the women's game, Courtney Paris can be a dominant force inside for Oklahoma.
And when she has room to operate around the basket, opponents are in for trouble.
That's where Whitney Hand comes in.
|OU Women's Basketball|
After losing only two games the rest of the season, Oklahoma lost twice to Texas A&M in a three-week span, once while Hand was out and once right after she came back and went scoreless in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.
But now, she's back and seems to be rounding back into form just in time for the Sooners' postseason push.
"It's perfect," said Paris, an All-America center who had her record-breaking run of 112 straight double-doubles snapped this season. "It makes people decide if they're going to cramp it in or take away our shooters. Her knocking down shots, it's huge for us just in our game plan but also it brings energy."
Hand has been the primary addition to the Sooners, who didn't have a single senior on last year's roster and would've returned their entire roster this year if starting guard Jenna Plumley hadn't transferred after a rocky year capped by her arrest on a petty larceny charge.
Hand took over her role and took the Sooners to another level, right up until her finger got bent the wrong way on a pass from Paris that was a bit too hard to handle. She missed the last four games of the regular season, and was a bit rusty when she came back.
She went 0-for-9 in the Big 12 tournament, didn't score in either of the Sooners' two games and says now "I might have even been a liability on the court."
What those two games did for Hand, though, was provide a warmup before the NCAA tournament began. She finally broke through with a 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting in the second-round win against Georgia Tech that propelled Oklahoma into Sunday's regional semifinal against fourth-seeded Pittsburgh in Oklahoma City.
"When you take two weeks off at this point in the season, it's just kind of stressful more than anything. It just makes it just a little overwhelming," Hand said.
"It wasn't about me getting back on my game. It was just confidence and all that kind of stuff mentally."
While she went only 2-for-13 in the first round of the NCAAs, Hand said that's when she really started to get her groove back. The first sign was when she hit her first 3-pointer, breaking a string of 18 straight misses dating back to before her injury.
"My shots weren't falling obviously, and I'm averaging a couple airballs a game, but I felt good the first game," Hand said. "They just weren't going in. But that happens. I was feeling good and we were winning."
The Sooners will need her at her best if they're to make a run to the Final Four -- and that national championship that Paris guaranteed.
Hand is Oklahoma's most dangerous 3-point shooter, but perhaps just as important are the intangibles she brings.
"Whitney's energy is great for us. She's always the person talking on the floor, and she just has the basketball knowledge," point guard Danielle Robinson said. "She knows when to shoot, she knows when to feed the post, she knows when the offense needs some kind of rhythm, and she gives us that."
Against Georgia Tech, Hand provided and instant boost with a personal 8-2 run to start the game. She also had a 3-pointer early in the second half as Oklahoma took control of a game that was tied at halftime.
"We always believe in Whitney, but she for herself needed to make some shots and get herself going -- and she did," Paris said.
Hand said it was particularly hard for her to be sidelines because she was used to playing every minute of every game for her small, private high school -- Liberty Christian in Fort Worth, Texas -- and she had taken on a large role in her first season in college.
On top of that, her team had some struggles without her.
"This is the time in the season where it needs to be all clicking," Hand said.
Even with Hand back, the Sooners still haven't been at full strength. Starting forward Amanda Thompson missed the first round and played sparingly against Georgia Tech because of a left foot injury, but Oklahoma hopes to have her back healthy again to face Pitt.
For the rest of the starting lineup, it's a chance to get into the final eight for the first time after early losses the past three seasons. But for Hand, it's her first chance to play in the regional semifinals.
"It's awesome. I'm so excited," Hand said. "It's weird thinking that last year you're at home doing your brackets and this year you're involved in it. It's definitely a change of pace.
"It's fast, it's fun, and it's everything March Madness should be."