Oklahoma starts Final 4 rush

Sooners halt Missouri, 81-75, to win West, gain berth in Atlanta

Ncaa Tournament

March 24, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

SAN JOSE, Calif. - After a game in which his team struggled to get by, in which foul trouble relegated him to the bench for literally half the game, Oklahoma's Aaron McGhee smiled and showed off the shaggy-looking necklace - not of gold, but of twine.

"This is the new thing here, the Final Four chain," McGhee said after his team defeated Missouri, 81-75, yesterday to win the NCAA West Regional and a trip to the national semifinals next weekend in Atlanta.

McGhee sat on the bench for 13 minutes with four fouls in the second half, but he scored nine of his 15 points during the final five minutes as the Sooners (31-4) clinched their first Final Four trip since 1988.

"It was tough, especially for me having to sit and watch the game," McGhee said. "When I got back in the game, I just wanted to help my team in the best way possible."

The senior forward's circumstances mirrored that of his team, which was out-rebounded, battled foul trouble and endured several lengthy offensive slumps to hold back Missouri (24-12), a team looking to become the first No. 12 seed to make it to a Final Four.

The Tigers had their chances - making runs in the mid-to-late portions of both halves - but were undone by poor free-throw shooting (20-for-34) and a nightmarish offensive game for star guard Clarence Gilbert, who made a lone field goal out of 16 attempts.

"We missed a few foul shots, we missed a few jump shots," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said.

He noted that his team had worked hard since January to shed its image of being only a sharp-shooting squad - molded by Gilbert and forward Kareem Rush - and stayed in the game by doing the supposed little things, like keeping Oklahoma off the offensive boards.

"Ironically, we couldn't get a shot to fall when we needed to," Snyder said.

Snyder gave much of the credit for that to the Sooners, who held the Tigers without a field goal for nine minutes down the stretch, hit 15 of 19 free throws in the second half and got a top-shelf performance from Quannas White, who not only hounded Gilbert, but also delivered 12 points to go along with seven rebounds and seven assists while making only one turnover.

What looked ugly, with Oklahoma shooting 45 percent from the floor and spending most of the last 10 minutes protecting small leads, was more than acceptable to the Sooners' coach, Kelvin Sampson.

"Maybe it was meant to be for the best team to win this game," said Sampson, who got 18 points from Hollis Price (named the region's most valuable player), as well as 17 from Ebi Ere. "We were never panicking. There was never a sense of disorganization."

To the contrary, any time Missouri looked like it might earn its first Final Four showing (after previous regional final appearances in 1976 and 1994), Oklahoma squashed the notion.

The first instance came when Sooners starters McGhee, Jabahri Brown and Ere all went to the bench with foul trouble and the Tigers went on a 16-6 run, taking a 32-31 lead on a pair of Rush free throws with 2:44 left in the half.

Oklahoma responded by outscoring Missouri 9-1 from that point, getting a pair of three-pointers from Price, including one at the buzzer good for a 41-33 lead at the break. On a short jumper by McGhee, the team pushed its lead to 45-35 with 18:40 left in the game.

But foul trouble - McGhee and Brown both picked up their fourth five minutes into the half - and continued poor shooting allowed Missouri back into the game. Eight straight points for the Tigers made the score 54-53 on a Rickey Paulding free throw at the 10:43 mark, but while Oklahoma never increased its lead beyond eight points, it never led by less than three after a White jumper that made the score 58-54 with 8:59 left.

When Rush hit a three with 2:43 remaining to end a drought of nearly nine minutes and pull Missouri to within three at 70-67, the Sooners responded 28 seconds later with a McGhee three-pointer off what Sampson called a"pick-and-pop" with Price.

"I felt that we had the game won," said Rush, who was in foul trouble most of the game, but finished with 17 points while Paulding led with 22. "Every bone in my body told me we would make the plays to ice the game. But Oklahoma made the big plays."

Sampson, who had made coaching stops at Montana Tech and Washington State before coming to Oklahoma, had always gone to the Final Four as a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, while his teams stayed home.

Price, one of the veteran members on a team that only had four returning players, reminded Sampson of that during a timeout with 10 seconds left and his team comfortably ahead.

"I told him we were tired of him going to the Final Four and us not getting to go," Price said. "We wanted to be with him, and so we are."

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