On Wobbly Knees, Higgins Still A Threat For Sooners

Saturday, March 24th 2007, 2:18 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ From the way she unloads 3-pointers long after practice is over, there's no way to tell the difficulty that Erin Higgins' knees are giving her.

Each shot begins with her trademark hop, and many end with the same splashdown that's made her the most prolific long-range shooter in Oklahoma history _ by far.

When asked, Higgins takes a break to answer questions from reporters, but she notes that she's got to go back out and finish her shooting. She'll be there until her shot feels right, and she won't leave until she's hit at least three in a row to go out on a positive note.

``She's relentless about her shot,'' Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. ``She knows that's her thing that makes her special, and she will stay and shoot, and shoot, and shoot and shoot.''

Higgins has left an indelible mark on the Sooners' program with her 266 3-pointers, some of them from closer to midcourt than the basket. And though her knees and All-America center Courtney Paris' presence have changed Higgins' role, Coale warns she's still dangerous.

She's made 92 more 3-pointers than any other Oklahoma player, and those shots have led to 100 wins while Higgins was on the court. That's the same number of victories Stacey Dales and LaNeishea Caufield had in their storied careers, and it's territory that few Sooners have been able to reach.

On Sunday against seventh-seeded Mississippi, Higgins will look to pass Dales and Caufield and get No. 3 seed Oklahoma (28-4) past the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since that tandem led the Sooners to the 2002 national championship game.

A 5-foot-9 guard, Higgins has had to adapt since she arrived at Oklahoma in the immediate wake of Dales and Caufield. In her debut, she scored 18 points to lead the Sooners in a loss to Tennessee that was Oklahoma's first post-Final Four game.

Less than three weeks later, she felt a pop in her right knee and fell to the floor during a November 2002 shootaround. Even as a team trainer expressed hope, Higgins knew right away she was headed for her second major surgery in less than a year.

She had blown out the ACL in her left knee 10 months earlier, during her senior year of high school. But Higgins moved past the immediate disbelief _ and another long rehab _ to earn her place in Oklahoma's history books.

``I don't think that I could quit,'' Higgins said. ``I don't, because I know that I would look back in 10 or 15 years and just regret it horribly bad if I didn't finish it out or at least try.''

Oklahoma assistant Chad Thrailkill remembers Higgins' high-school days, when she was better able to get to the basket and shoot off the dribble. But she's found a niche with the long ball in college.

``She gets frustrated at times, just in her lateral movement and things like that, just knowing what she used to be able to do,'' said Thrailkill, who turned to Higgins as a high-school freshman and watched her lead his Westmoore High team to a state title.

``But I think in the big picture, she knows she can help our team win, and she sticks with that.''

Last year, Higgins broke Oklahoma's season record with 88 3-pointers and set the career mark in the process. But in the offseason, she had another surgery on her left knee to repair a microfracture.

``You kind of take what's handed to you,'' Higgins said. ``They said, `We've got to drill in your leg there, and it's a six-month rehab.' And you're like, `That's just the same as an ACL.'

``You kind of take it with a grain of salt and you realize if this is what I have to do in order to be able to contribute and be a part of this team, then this is what I'm going to have to do. At no point did I regret it at all.''

Higgins showed she's still dangerous, making a 3-pointer with 7 seconds left in regulation that allowed Oklahoma to eventually beat Texas Tech 86-81 in double overtime in January. When given the chance, she can still knock down three 3-pointers to change a game.

``Even if she doesn't make any shots, the fact that she might or she can changes the way the defense plays,'' said Coale, who praised Higgins for refusing to let the injuries get in her way. ``You can't not honor her.''

The danger Higgins presents means extra space inside for Paris, who's racked up a phenomenal 60 straight double-doubles. And Paris' presence has helped spare Higgins the trouble of running around a handful of screens just to find room for a shot.

``When I get an open shot, I need to be able to knock it down. If a rebound comes to me, I need to get it. If not, I need to block out and let Courtney go get it,'' Higgins said of her role now.

``I'm not an incredible, flashy player and I don't try to be something that I'm not,'' she said.

When Oklahoma's tournament run is over, it'll likely be the end of Higgins' basketball days, too. She envisions a career in physical therapy in her future.

``I just feel like basketball has taken me about as far as it's going to take me. I think my body's taken me about as far as it's going to take me,'' Higgins said. ``From here on out, it's golf.''