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After a close call, Isaiah Cousins made Norman his new home

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Just keep running, he thought. If he could run, then perhaps the bullet had missed his vital organs, and his life would not end that day.

A few months after the completion of his sophomore season in 2014, Isaiah Cousins felt a sting in his back as rival gangs exchanged gunfire in his hometown of Mount Vernon, New York.

One of the bullets hit the Oklahoma point guard, who assisted the Sooners on their run to next week's Final Four in Houston when he recorded 11 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds in his team's 80-68 victory over Oregon in the Elite Eight.

In that moment two years ago, he remembered the anecdotes from others in his tough neighborhood and the lessons they learned: crippling, life-threatening gunshot wounds silenced the bodies of young men.

But Cousins could run. He was running. So he was alive.

"At the moment, I knew I was good," Cousins said. "Because when you get shot, if it gets hit in a certain place, it will go through the bone, it will go in and out. When I got hit, I was still running. I ran pretty fast. And when I got to the hospital, they said nothing bad had really happened and I could still play basketball."

Cousins had escaped a career-altering injury -- doctors said he would survive and heal without surgery -- but his mother, Lisa Cousins, who raised her son in a city with pockets of trouble, had a request for Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger.

"We got the news when Isaiah was home that he had been shot," Kruger said. "We called right away. Obviously, you're very concerned when you don't know to what degree. When we learned it wasn't life-threatening, that was a big relief. That he was going to recover fully. But still his mom said, 'Coach, keep him in Norman. Don't let him come back home.'"

It's spring break season for college students around the country. Some will travel to hotspots, such as Cancun, Mexico, and South Beach in Miami. Others will load their vehicles with laundry, hit the highway and go home.

Some, however, cannot. They should not.

Because a trip home forces some young men and women to return to dangerous scenes.

The shooting in 2014 and his mother's advice convinced Cousins to spend more time on the Oklahoma campus.

"From the first time he went out [to Norman], I thought I'd see him a lot more [in New York]," said Rahme Anderson, Cousins' AAU coach at New Heights Youth, Inc., in New York City.

In Norman, Cousins worked with Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard -- a foursome that's made 104 consecutive starts together -- to grow into a player who is averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line. He finished with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in Oklahoma's wins over Texas A&M and Oregon in the NCAA tournament.

"Isaiah, he's done a really good job," Hield said after Saturday's win. "If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have had all these shots in rhythm, and he gave me good shots in rhythm. He just has a knack, a good change of pace, good change of speed, and he just puts the pressure on the defense, because once he gets past them, it's hard to maintain him because they're always helping so much. So he creates so much for this team."

But not his AAU team. Not at first.

Anderson, who coached Cousins on the grassroots scene for three years, refused to give him big minutes in his first season with New Heights Youth, Inc., because he questioned his desire to reach his potential. He said those early stretches on the bench, however, made Cousins more determined.

"I think that made him wake up and want to be great," Anderson said.

A growth spurt in high school -- from six feet to 6-foot-4 -- and his New York grit gleaned from rough games on the city's blacktops molded him, too. He left Mount Vernon High School as a standout ball player with scholarship offers from Dayton, Xavier, Virginia Tech, Rhode Island and Oklahoma.

Cousins has become a key performer for the Sooners. He hit two critical 3-pointers in the first half of Saturday's game that allowed Oklahoma to extend its lead against Oregon. He collected double figures for Oklahoma in the first and second rounds, too.

"He's very important," Spangler said. "I think he sets a pace for our offense. He controls us, what we do on offense, and if we aren't getting what we like, he pulls it out and starts over. I think he's gotten better all year long at moving the ball and finding people open and getting them shots."

Cousins will never tell you these things.

If he does not trust you, he keeps the conversations short. One second, he's joking with teammates about a picture on one of their cell phones. The next, he's responding to a reporter's questions in brief soundbites.

"I wish I could show you the text messages," Anderson said. "He's a clown. He's a comedian."

He'll communicate with those who know him, but he only trusts over time. That's what life in New York taught him, he said.

And that's what he has found in Norman, Oklahoma. A bond strengthened over four years of hard-court battles. A group of brothers he trusts -- the crucial principle that's carried Oklahoma on a ride to the Final Four.

"I never imagined [a Final Four run], but I just remember me, Buddy and one of our other guys, [former Oklahoma recruit Je'lon Hornbeak], that came in with us," Cousins said, "we always talked about how we could bring big things to Oklahoma and change the program around."

When his friends discuss the night an errant bullet struck Cousins in the back and came within inches of curtailing that dream, you can still feel their fear. Anderson said he panicked. Kruger worried. Woodard's phone buzzed with text messages about someone named Isaiah who'd been shot. "I said, 'Isaiah who?'" recalled Woodard, who wanted to leave campus to see his friend in New York after first hearing the news, before he found out Cousins did not suffer any serious injuries.

Cousins returned to school three days after the incident. "When I figured out he was OK and he'd made it to the hospital," Woodard said, "I was like 'Yeah, he's tough and he'll bounce back.'"

The only one who seems calm about the entire ordeal is Cousins. Anderson said he even jokes about the moment with those close to him.

No big deal for Cousins. The bullet didn't stop him, so life moved forward.

On Saturday night, however, Cousins stood on the floor at the Honda Center in Anaheim and reflected while his team celebrated the program's first trip to the Final Four since 2002. His mother advised him to stay in Norman and limit his trips back home. Cousins listened. Schoolwork and basketball occupied his time in the city of 118,000, which Cousins said presented fewer pitfalls for him than Mount Vernon's streets.

"It saved my life," Cousins said. "It kept me doing the right things and keeping negative energy out of my way. It could've been a lot of things I could've been doing, but basketball helped me on the right path."