Cowboys' 3 lassos St. Joe's

Lucas' heroics ruin tiny top seed's bold bid for Final 4 in 30-2 year

31-3 Okla. State survives, 64-62

Nelson's vaunted career ends in despair with 18-footer off front rim

Ncaa Tournament

March 28, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The dream that began when Jameer Nelson decided to return for his senior year at Saint Joseph's ended last night. The dream that went on for all those months and all those wins was abruptly disturbed here at Continental Airlines Arena.

The Hawks will be seeing orange in their nightmares for years.

After a three-point shot by Oklahoma State junior guard John Lucas III had pushed his team into the lead with 6.9 seconds left, Nelson's straightaway 18-footer hit the front rim as time expired, giving the second-seeded Cowboys a thrilling 64-62 victory in the East Rutherford Regional final.

The win sent Oklahoma State (31-3) to its first Final Four in nine years and coach Eddie Sutton to the third in his career. The Cowboys will meet the winner of today's St. Louis Regional final between Kansas and Georgia Tech on Saturday in San Antonio.

The defeat denied top-seeded Saint Joseph's (30-2) the opportunity of going to its first Final Four since 1961.

Lucas finished with 19 points, all but two in the second half, and also scored the go-ahead jumper with 41.9 seconds to go. Junior forward Joey Graham, who gave Lucas the assist on the winning three, had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Cowboys. Junior guard Delonte West led the Hawks with 20 points and Nelson added 17.

"Every time I shoot the ball, I think it's going to go in," Nelson said, when asked about his final shot. "I would never shoot if I didn't think I was going to make it."

Oklahoma State guard Tony Allen had another thought.

"I knew he was going to miss," Allen said. "He was defended well all night. I knew he was getting tired and fatigue was setting in."

After the shot hit the front rim, Lucas grabbed the rebound and flung the ball high into the air. As the Oklahoma State players began to celebrate, Nelson slumped back onto the court and stayed there for a few moments. Finally, a few of the Cowboys came over to console the senior All-American.

"They were just trying to help me out with my emotions," said Nelson, recently named the winner of this season's Naismith Award, one of many player of the year awards he is expected to get. "They were telling me that we don't have anything to hang our heads about. I appreciate those guys. That's good sportsmanship. They didn't have to come over."

Said Lucas: "He's a terrific player. He had a big-time career in college and he's going to have a great career in the league [the NBA]. He plays with a lot of heart. You have to tip your hat to him and show him respect."

It seemed for a moment that Saint Joseph's was going to be able to continue its magical season when junior swingman Pat Carroll, who had suffered through a miserable shooting night (3-for-11) made a three-point shot with 29.2 seconds to go to put the Hawks ahead 62-61.

The moment didn't last long.

"It felt good for about two seconds, to be honest with you," Carroll said. "Everything just goes so fast in this game. They came back and matched us with their three."

The winning basket came on a busted play. Graham had the ball at the top of the key, and as he drove on Carroll, he immediately stumbled. Carroll lunged at the loose ball, but Graham recovered it and shoved it to Lucas on the left wing for a three.

"That has to be the biggest basket of my career," Lucas said.

Lucas, who made several big shots as the Associated Press Big 12 Player of the Year since transferring to Oklahoma State from Baylor last summer, also had the biggest half of his career. It came after he had missed five of the six shots he had attempted in the first half, including all five of his threes.

"I was horrible," said Lucas, the son of former Maryland star John Lucas. "I had given myself a talk at halftime and Coach [Sutton] gave me a pep talk. My teammates were behind me and I couldn't let my teammates down."

Despite some poor shooting (11-for-27, including 0-for-8 on threes) as well as 10 turnovers, the Cowboys trailed by only 33-27 at halftime after an earlier nine-point deficit. But they stormed back with an 8-0 run to start the second half and led 55-50 on a three-point play by Ivan McFarlin with 7:53 left.

West started and finished a 9-2 run for the Hawks, giving Saint Joseph's its first lead since early in the second half with a spinning baseline jumper with 3:25 left. Graham, playing with four fouls, tied the game at 59 by scoring in the lane.

Defense, and fatigue, then took over as several shots were missed until Lucas made his first go-ahead jumper.

In the stands, John Lucas Jr. admired the way his son and the Cowboys had fought back.

"As bad as he was in the first half," said the elder Lucas, celebrating with the Cowboys fans in the stands after the game, "he was twice as good in the second half. I'm finally going to get to go to the Final Four. David Thompson stopped me three straight years."

And his son, as well as the rest of the Oklahoma State team, stopped Nelson and the Hawks. Woke them up right at the end of their dream. There were plenty of tears shed, and plenty of memories made during an unbeaten regular season by this little Atlantic 10 team from Philadelphia, but few regrets.

"It was," Carroll said, "a magical season."

The magic ended last night. The Hawks had disappeared.

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