Rickey Paulding throws down a dunk during the second half of the NCAA West Region championship game Saturday.
March 23, 2002
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson is going to another Final Four - only this time, he won't have to go alone.
With a dynamic combination of toughness and late-game cool, Oklahoma rolled to its first national semifinal since 1988 with an 81-75 victory over 12th-seeded Missouri on Saturday.
Hollis Price scored the last of his 18 points on two free throws with 6 seconds left to give the Sooners their 12th straight victory and a ticket to Atlanta to face Indiana, an 81-69 winner over Kent State.
"Coach goes to the Final Four every year, but he never takes us," Price said, grinning. "We're tagging along this time."
After the final buzzer, Price enjoyed a long and joyous hug with Sampson, whose 19 years in charge of three programs culminated with a relatively trouble-free run through the West Regional, highlighted by an ugly but satisfying win over the Tigers.
"You can never imagine the exact way you'll achieve a dream like this, but I'm pretty happy with the way it happened," Sampson said.
Like many college basketball coaches, Sampson makes a regular pilgrimage to the Final Four, where he watches his profession's best and dreams of getting his own chance. Most seasons, he was unable even to take his wife because of his schools' budget constraints.
"I'd sit up there in the stands and watch the teams practice," Sampson said. "I always wanted to bring our team. I didn't want to go alone.
"As soon as I got to our locker room a minute ago, I was thinking there's some young coach out there who's going to be watching Oklahoma this year ... and my message to him is that you can get here."
After building the Sooners' program for eight seasons, Sampson has a deep,
versatile squad peaking at the right time - and only two victories remain
between Oklahoma and its first national title. The Sooners lost to Danny
Manning-led Kansas in the 1988 final.
Ebi Ere scored 17 points for Oklahoma (31-4), seeded No. 2 in the West. The Sooners made their reputation this season with hard-nosed play on both ends of the court and that made the difference against the Tigers, who were looking for a historic upset.
The Sooners buckled down on defense to claim the lead, then kept their tempers in check and hit their free throws down the stretch. It was Oklahoma's ninth straight victory over its Big 12 rival.
While his players kept their heads throughout, it actually was a technical called on Sampson with under 15 minutes left and Oklahoma leading by eight points that precipitated a 10-3 Missouri run. The spurt pulled the Tigers to 54-53.
But Oklahoma never trailed in the second half, although the Sooners also never pulled away fully from the pesky Tigers, the lowest-seeded team ever to advance to the round of eight.
McGhee scored 15 points, while Quannas White had 12 points and seven assists. Price, the region's MVP, hit four 3-pointers.
Missouri played with the same tenacity and opportunistic outside shooting that got the Tigers to the round of eight for the first time since 1994. Rickey Paulding scored 23 points for Missouri, while Kareem Rush had 17.
"Some of the shots that we normally make didn't fall," Rush said. "It's hard to understand right now."
Clarence Gilbert, Missouri's senior leader and leading scorer in the tournament, had a 1-for-16 shooting performance, including eight missed 3-pointers. Though the Tigers also were beset by foul trouble, poor free-throw shooting and 15 turnovers, they remained close to Oklahoma all game.
The Sooners led by eight with 3:44 left. Missouri pulled within 70-67 on Rush's 3-pointer a minute later, but McGhee answered with a 3-pointer, and Oklahoma made two key defensive stops to force a free-throw shooting contest in the final minute.
Missouri's frustration boiled over when Rush, in likely his final college game, got a technical foul for shoving an Oklahoma player to the ground with 36 seconds left.
Instead of challenging Rush, as McGhee appeared to want to do, the Sooners stayed cool - and moments later, they were wearing celebratory T-shirts and hats.
"They were cool," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. "That's all you can say about them. They kept their composure and waited for their chances."
Missouri missed out on a chance to become the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four. That distinction still belongs to LSU, which made it as a No. 11 in 1986.
Both teams looked tense in the opening minutes Saturday. Gilbert, who led the Tigers with 23 points in their victory over UCLA on Thursday, didn't score until hitting a free throw nearly 10 minutes in.
Ere hit a series of early shots to give Oklahoma an early lead, but Rush and Rickey Paulding kept Missouri close. The Tigers took a 32-31 lead, but the Sooners closed the half on a 10-1 run, capped by Price's 3-pointer at the buzzer.
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