- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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By the time Kevi Luper's college career comes to a close, the Oral Roberts senior's hands will be responsible for scoring more points than almost any woman who ever set foot on a college basketball court. So it's one of those curious quirks of history that it was what her legs could do that put her on a path to becoming the most prolific mid-major scorer since Jackie Stiles.
Now in her first season as the head coach at Oral Roberts, Misti Cussen was an assistant coach for the Golden Eagles when she happened to see a segment on a local newscast honoring the high school athlete of the week. Then just a sophomore at Adair High School, Luper earned her airtime for her success as a cross country runner, where she twice finished second in the state. But when the voiceover talked about the multi-sport star's athleticism, particularly as a contributor on the basketball team, Cussen's ears perked up. In the office the next day, she mentioned that there was an athlete in Adair, a town of fewer than a thousand people, who they should follow up on.
Even without seeing Luper play basketball, something about the kid just stuck out.
"Even as a sophomore, when she spoke, you could just tell there was something special about Kevi," Cussen said. "She just understands competition, she understands leaving a mark of excellence on things she does."
If you want proof, it's right there in the NCAA record books.
Luper began this season ranked 113th all-time in scoring among Division I women's players, the best among active players. She has since passed 30 more players on that list, including names like Lindsay Whalen, Tina Charles and Ivory Latta. And things get interesting when you start looking at the ground she still has time to cover in the coming months.
Over her first three college seasons, Luper averaged 24 points per game. If Oral Roberts plays 30 games this season, and if she matches that average and throws in an extra 3-pointer somewhere along the way, she will become just the eighth player in NCAA history to score 3,000 career points, a club that includes the likes of Stiles, Maya Moore, Chamique Holdsclaw and Cheryl Miller. That's not bad all on its own. But if the Golden Eagles added another couple of games, perhaps by winning the Southland Conference tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament, Luper could end up fourth, sliding in ahead of Moore as the top scorer to play her whole career since 2000.
And if you really want to have some fun with the numbers, Luper needs to score 846 points this season to move into second place behind only Stiles, a feat she would achieve by averaging 28.2 points per game over 30 games, 27.3 points per game over 31 games or 26.4 points per game over 32 games. (It's also worth noting that even an average season would land her fourth in all-time steals, first among players who played since 2000.)
Needless to say, when Cussen did get around to watching Luper play basketball in high school, she came away impressed. So, too, did a number of Big 12 schools that expressed interest.
"Kevi is a very smooth athlete, and you don't realize how much quickness and explosion is there until you've seen her in person," Cussen said. "She changes direction so well, she gets up quickly, she's a good leaper. She's got a great runner's lower body, she's really strong in the upper thighs and the leg."
By her own accounting, Luper was the leading scorer on just about every team she ever played on for a season, but that's not the same as saying points always came easy for her. The middle of three children, and the only daughter, she spent much of her childhood playing one-on-one or the ubiquitous driveway game of "21" against bigger and stronger brothers. Winning shooting games like H-O-R-S-E was easy enough. Winning the contact games? Not so much.
"We were very rough with each other, and we would just beat each other up because we're all so competitive, we hate losing," said Luper, whose father played football at Oklahoma State and only encouraged the competition. "I think a lot of my game and skills, being able to score inside or shoot a jump shot over somebody, have been acquired through having to play my brothers my entire life."
Perhaps it's not surprising that given the level of fearlessness she developed, she had a tough time staying healthy for stretches in high school, a wrist injury and ACL tear in her junior year leading some of those bigger schools to back off their interest. Luper broke enough bones growing up that even she wondered at one point if there was something about her physiology that left her particularly susceptible. But Oral Roberts never lost interest and Luper, religiously devout, found the school to be a good fit on and off the court. She scored 25 points in 25 minutes in her first college game and has missed a total of three games in three-plus seasons.
Skeptics will point out she rarely faces elite defenders, and that's undeniably true. But there are a lot of players in power conferences who don't absorb the kind of daily punishment she does as the target of every defense she faces.
"She's usually got somebody hanging on her when she's just trying to break open to receive the basketball," Cussen said. "As a guard, trying to rub her defender off on maybe a post player, the opposing post players let her have it when she comes through, and they'll bump her off her line. There's a lot of jarring, a physical toll that goes into her style. She takes a lot of forearm shivers as the game goes on."
Because she was physically small and from a small town in Kansas, Stiles was easily cast as the quintessential mid-major underdog. The truth of it is she nearly committed to Connecticut and likely would have been a star, if perhaps not the all-time leading scorer in the history of women's college basketball, at almost any school. Whether that's true of Luper is up for debate, as was the case for recent mid-major stars like James Madison's Dawn Evans, Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark and Drexel's Gabriela Marginean. In the more typical profile of mid-major stars, they are both the products of systems and the reason for those systems.
"I think a lot of what we do in our system fits her style well, and vice versa," Cussen said. "So I think part of that with her is that because she is such an outstanding player in our program and at our level, there is a lot of stuff that we structure that is specific with her that gives us an advantage. And we're able to fill in around her very well. I think probably at a top-10 program, I think she would have opportunities that she could be effective like that on a given night, but it probably wouldn't be structured toward her as much as it is for us, being a small mid-major."
There are also burdens that come with being the small-school star, burdens not necessarily shared by major peers. For one, Luper has to go as hard in practice as she does in games, absorbing some of the same punishment from her own teammates, because it's the only chance those teammates get better by working against anything close to that kind of talent. She takes a lot of shots, but she knows her team isn't going to be successful if she doesn't.
But if people choose to discount Luper's contributions, as when she was left off the most recent preseason watch list for the Wade Trophy, she will just keep quietly putting up shots and making more than almost anyone ever has.
"We'll kind of tease her about being a blonde every now and then," Cussen said. "She's got kind of an innocence about her that gets teased a lot by her teammates. But if you walked into a room and all of our kids were in street clothes, you'd have a hard time picking out who Kevi is. I think she blends off the court; there's not really anything about her personality that just demands attention."
Everything about her on the court demands attention. Just take a look at ice bags she tries to hide or the sore, halting movements she makes the morning after games.
Better yet, just check the record books.
16dBonnie D. Ford