Speedy Luper scoring in bunches for ORU

Jan 21, 2010 - 10:21 PM By JEFF LATZKE AP Sports Writer

TULSA, Okla.(AP) -- The whistle blows and Kevi Luper takes off, effortlessly striding the length of the basketball court.

She's the first Oral Roberts player to reach the opposite baseline and the first to return. And when she or a teammate misses another free throw at the end of the Golden Eagles' practice, off they go again - only for Luper to finish the sprint in first again.

It's that speed that has helped Luper become one of Division I's top scorers and the nation's top pickpocket, with 4.6 steals per game. Thriving in coach Jerry Finkbeiner's new uptempo style, the freshman from rural Oklahoma is averaging 24.6 points and didn't miss a beat against a trio of ranked Big 12 teams earlier this season.

"I love the style of play. I love anything fast, not that I like to run," said Luper, a 5-foot-10 guard from just up the turnpike in northeastern Oklahoma. "Running and being fast and just up and down the court, it's all part of my game and mostly what I'm best at. It suits me perfect."

Luper impressed immediately after arriving on campus, lapping some of her future teammates in a mile run. Her best time was 5 minutes, 31 seconds - well ahead of the 6:15 standard Finkbeiner required of his guards.

"Kevi came in with instant respect from her teammates, just athletically and conditioning-wise and fitness," he said. "That helped Kevi's case coming in: `Who's this girl?"'

Now, people are starting to notice. She burst onto the scene by scoring 44 points against La Salle in her third college game, using her fleet feet to her advantage. She had seven fast-break layups that came off of ORU steals, including one that she turned into a three-point play, and she also hit a 3-pointer in transition.

She also scored 24 points at Kansas, 19 at Texas and 32 at then-No. 6 Baylor - maintaining the same average against ranked Big 12 competition as she has against the rest of ORU's schedule.

"I think her only weakness is she doesn't shoot enough," Finkbeiner said. "There's opportunities there that she hasn't seen yet in the game plan. She's a mid-20s scorer her freshman year, and she's set the bar pretty high for the next three years."

Luper ended up at Oral Roberts, a school of about 5,000 in south Tulsa bearing the name of its televangelist founder, after several Big 12 schools courted her but pulled away because of a string of injuries. She broke her arm, hurt her hand and tore a knee ligament, all during her last two years of high school.

"I'm starting to get all my injuries confused," she says now.

At the time, it was frustrating. She'd get schools set up to watch her play, only to have to cancel when another random injury popped up.

"I just missed a lot of recruiting, but ORU was there the whole time," Luper said. "I really liked the coaches and they made the NCAA tournament, and that's what matters in college basketball.

"I wanted to go somewhere where I could make an impact."

Finkbeiner, who has guided the Golden Eagles to the NCAA tournament five times, noticed Luper early and never gave up. She caught his eye with her effort and work ethic during practice at Adair High School and the variety of shots she displayed in warmups before being double- and triple-teamed during games.

"I always liked the hop in her step," Finkbeiner said. "I could tell athletically that she was a cut above."

Luper's parents, Kevin and Jamee, both played high school basketball and her dad played college football for Oklahoma State. She says she remembers playing basketball as early as kindergarten or first grade, when her mom would teach her to dribble in the kitchen. When she was in fourth grade, her parents helped organize a youth league so she could play on a team for the first time.

"We were going to recruit her until she'd say, `No,"' Finkbeiner said. "I think things just kind of worked down that pathway where it came together where our timing was right with her, and her timing was right with us. There's no looking back now because our goals are very high."

And, as Finkbeiner says, it's not just "The Kevi Show." He considers this his best freshman class ever at ORU, although he got a scare when Luper and Jaci Bigham of McAlester tore their ACLs one day apart in 2008. The two showed up at the team's NCAA selection show party on crutches.

"I can only imagine what the team was thinking," Luper said. "`That's what we have next year?"'

Now, the roommates - having bonded through their recoveries - make up the highest scoring backcourt in Division I at 42.2 points per game and have Finkbeiner envisioning another transformation at a program that had never been to the NCAA tournament before he was hired in 1996. The infusion of talent has allowed him to return to the fast-paced style he used to win three straight NAIA titles at Southern Nazarene, where even developed a WNBA player - Astou Ndiaye-Diatta.

He still has hanging on his office wall a framed copy of the Dunkel Index strength ratings that had SNU ahead of even national powerhouses Tennessee and Louisiana Tech for a time during its 1994 undefeated season.

At ORU, his sights are set on getting the school's first NCAA tournament win and perhaps getting even further as Luper's freshman class matures.

"Things are kind of set that this is who ORU is now and we will be," said Finkbeiner, whose teams had never averaged more than 68 points until ranking third in the nation at 83.7 this season. "We're scoring a lot of points this year. We're going to score a lot more next year.

"The future is really bright, and a lot of it has to radiate from Kevi and who she is and where we're going."

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