Olajuwon making most of senior season

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In a world where some folks don't think Minute Rice gets finished cooking fast enough, you really have to appreciate the patience of Oklahoma center Abi Olajuwon.

She came to Norman, Okla., from Los Angeles, knowing full well that Courtney Paris was already there playing for Oklahoma and was just a year older.

Olajuwon played 35 minutes Sunday in the third-seeded Sooners' 77-72 overtime victory over No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the regional semifinals. And she'll be an important factor in the regional final against 4-seed Kentucky on Tuesday night (ESPN/ESPN360.com, 9:07 ET).

Consider that as a freshman, Olajuwon averaged 3.9 minutes a game. As a sophomore, 6.3. As a junior, 6.0. This season, with Courtney and twin Ashley graduated, Olajuwon has started every game and averages nearly 23 minutes. There's not another senior remaining in the NCAA tournament whose time on court changed so drastically from her first three seasons to her final one.

"I think there are very few players anywhere today who are even OK with sitting as freshmen," OU coach Sherri Coale said. "Kids today come in and they want to immediately play for 35 minutes. They think they're entitled to that because they got a scholarship. Abi was so different from that, and so refreshing.

"It wasn't as if she said, 'Oh, I'm OK to come and sit on the bench for three years.' She said, 'I want to come and get better. When I play, I play. When I can help you, I help you.'

"Why else would she choose to come to Oklahoma and play behind Courtney? And Courtney deserves a lot of credit for Abi's development as well, going against her every day in practice. Courtney was never 'nice' to Abi, and that was probably the best thing she could ever do to her to make her better."

Olajuwon laughs now when admitting, "The person who was always yelling at me the most definitely wasn't Coach Coale. She didn't need to. Courtney and Ashley always were on me, and I probably hated them every second in practice. But I also knew they would be the first people to support me after practice. I knew they genuinely just wanted the best for me. And still to this day, they get on me about things."

The Paris twins have played overseas since leaving Oklahoma, but they keep in close touch with Olajuwon.

"They are amazing players, and they could have easily just focused on themselves," Olajuwon said. "But they always focused on their teammates. We Skype and are on Facebook all the time. Courtney made sure she came to my senior night, and she was at our first- and second-round games. She still feels part of this team."

Olajuwon shed a significant number of pounds last summer in order to be in shape to play as much as she has.

"It's definitely about the team," Olajuwon said of her weight-loss program. "And when you think you're going to crack, you just remember how many people you would be disappointing.

"And that goes beyond our locker room. It's the fans and everyone who has high expectations of us. So that kind of made it easier because it was less about me and more about everyone else. It was something that was a necessity. I wanted my teammates to know I did everything I could to commit to them."

Point guard Danielle Robinson, who has the exact opposite issue -- she is always trying to gain a little weight -- said that it was important for the rest of the team to provide support for Olajuwon as she worked herself into better shape.

"After she did everything she did, we new it was going to be a special year," Robinson said. "As a teammate, you help by what you chose to eat and where you choose to go eat when you're with her. Her discipline level was very good, and it continues to be."

In her three NCAA tournament games thus far, Olajuwon has totaled 54 points and 29 rebounds.

"She has been unbelievable over the past couple of games," fellow senior Amanda Thompson said. "You can see it in her eyes how much she wants to win. It just shows what she's done over the year and in the offseason has been paying off."

Olajuwon, of course, grew up watching basketball; her father, Hakeem, played in the NBA. He lives overseas, and has never been a visible-to-outsiders presence in her basketball career the way her mother and stepfather, Lita and Leonard Richardson, have been. However, Abi has kept a good relationship with Hakeem. And observing what he did while he was still playing helped prepare her for a basketball career that she initially wasn't very interested in pursuing.

Then when she did decide she wanted to play, she knew she had a lot to catch up on.

"When you're 17, you think, 'Oh, I want to play!'" Olajuwon said. "But there were other things that went into my decision. I wanted to go to the Final Four and have a chance to win a national championship. Courtney and Ashley being at Oklahoma was a plus. It was something that I thought about -- going against them every day. I'm not saying it wasn't hard at times, but you have to take risks."

It's also important to note that Olajuwon didn't spend the last three seasons just clapping and yelling encouragement.

"When I would be on the bench, Coach Coale always told me to be prepared for anything," Olajuwon said. "And Courtney was one of those people who genuinely always wanted feedback. She'd say, 'If you see things that I don't see, tell me.' So I wasn't just going to sit on the bench cheering. I was really focused on the game and studied things, saw what worked and what didn't."

Olajuwon is proud of the senior season she has had, but really doesn't think what she has done is anything more than what should be expected.

"Division I basketball is hard … but in the grand scheme of things, what we do is pretty easy to do," Olajuwon said. "We get our school paid for, we get to play basketball. We get so much support. We get letters from people who tell us things like how following our team helped them get through cancer or other hard situations in their lives.

"You realize it's about so much more than just what we do on the court. And it makes you, everywhere you go, want to represent Oklahoma accordingly."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.