Missouri aims to make most of 2nd chance at Oklahoma

12th seed Tigers revamped since Jan. loss to Sooners

West Regional

March 23, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Once already this season, Quin Snyder's Missouri team has faced the Oklahoma squad that stands between it and a Final Four appearance.

That familiarity, though, does not bring a sense of comfort. The Sooners defeated the Tigers, 84-71, in Norman, Okla., on Jan. 21 for their eighth straight win in the series.

Assessing what No. 12 seed Missouri has going for it against second-seeded Oklahoma, which just finished torching Arizona, Snyder said: "I'm not sure we have an advantage - we're trying to find some. The law of averages might be our best advantage."

Today's West Regional final between Big 12 teams is only the 10th intraleague matchup in an NCAA regional final, the last coming with Big Ten teams Wisconsin and Purdue in 2000.

Regardless of the outcome, it means the Big 12 will have at least one team in the Final Four for the first time since Oklahoma State reached the national semifinals in 1995, giving a boost to a league that has always found itself searching for respect.

"One of the things we were always getting asked was why do you think you're not getting any respect, but I think we're getting our respect now," Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson said. "They don't just give it away - you have to earn it."

Oklahoma gets to this point one year after a disappointing first-round loss to Indiana State.

With Hollis Price, Aaron McGhee and Daryan Selvy as the top returnees from 2001, the Sooners have consistently had to adjust the standards in recording their first 30-win season since 1989.

"This year has been wonderful and we don't want it to stop right now," Price said, "but we've got one more game left to get to the Final Four."

As laudable as the Tigers were in pulling away from UCLA on Thursday night - with 10 three-pointers evening out shortcomings in most other areas - Oklahoma looked far better that same evening against a better team.

The Sooners, who put up 55 second-half points and limited Arizona to 29 percent shooting in the second half, are the ultimate team: the one that dives after loose balls, attacks the glass, swarms to the ball on defense and is patient on offense. Oklahoma is, in a word, tough.

"I'm a tough player and they're tough," said Missouri guard Clarence Gilbert, who had nine threes in that loss to Oklahoma. "They play really hard, they compete at the highest level and you have to match that - and they're really well-coached."

Missouri has been working in fits and starts to emulate Oklahoma's example the past two months.

The Tigers have progressed to the point where they bear only faint resemblance to the team that faced the Sooners in January, just after Snyder decided to move starting point guard Wesley Stokes to the bench, Rickey Paulding into a starting off-guard spot and Gilbert into Stokes' spot.

"You can expect some rough moments and times when you change a point guard, especially one that's been so dominant as a shooter," Sampson said. "We caught them at the right time - they weren't really together yet."

Because of the adjustment, the Tigers get more leadership from Gilbert, more athleticism from Paulding (their best defender), and a solid, experienced reserve in Stokes. Post man Arthur Johnson has emerged as an inside threat to go with his talents as a shot-blocker (70 blocks this season).

The major question is how Missouri - led by swingman Kareem Rush - can match up with Oklahoma's weapons, beginning with Aaron McGhee, a power forward with ability inside and out. He showed that in Thursday's win with 19 points and seven rebounds.

Off guard Price, who had 22 first-half points against Arizona, is another standout.

"If you let up even for a second - psychologically or physically - you'll get beat," Snyder said. "Those guys prove that time and time again. They never let up."

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