Monday, March 25, 2002

Gritty Sooners team to watch in Final Four

'Winning ugly. . . beautiful to us'

The Associated Press

        SAN JOSE, Calif. — Except for the net around his neck and the sweat-soaked uniform underneath his celebratory T-shirt, Aaron McGhee might have been just another Oklahoma student stoked by the Sooners' Final Four run.

        “It's the greatest! It's the best thing that could happen to this school and this team,” the star power forward said. “You know the whole state of Oklahoma is going to be partying this week.”

        McGhee's excitement in San Jose on Saturday was well-founded. After a fairly trouble-free run through the West Regional that showcased their depth and maturity, the Sooners are headed to the Final Four on a 12-game winning streak — the nation's longest.

        Oklahoma emerged from what most considered the NCAA tournament's toughest regional with a workmanlike 81-75 victory over Missouri on Saturday. McGhee spent much of the game in foul trouble but hit a 3-pointer with 2:14 left that put the Tigers too far behind to recover.

        “We earned our way this far, but once we get down to Atlanta, it's a totally different thing,” McGhee said. “I think this team will be single-minded on its goal.”

        It's time everyone got to know the Sooners, who appear to be in great shape to challenge for their first national title. They'll be favorites in Saturday's semifinal against Indiana for a trip to their first championship game since 1988, when they lost to Kansas.

        Oklahoma is 31-4, with a Big 12 tournament championship and an undefeated home season, yet it lacks the high national profile of Duke, Kansas or Maryland.

        The Sooners were overshadowed during the conference season by the Jayhawks' outstanding year and even by Bob Knight's return to coaching at Texas Tech.

        Oklahoma rose to No.3 in the national rankings the hard way — the same way it won the West with a gritty victory over Missouri in which 53 stifling fouls were called, choking the game's flow.

        “Winning ugly? That's beautiful to us,” coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Maybe it was meant to be for our team to win that way. It's just one way we can win a game. We have tough kids.”

        While top-shelf college programs across the nation struggle to fill the gaps left by early entries to the NBA draft, Sampson fleshed out his roster with junior-college players and transfers.

        The result is a deep, experienced team with a rotation in which Hollis Price is the only key contributor who came to Oklahoma directly out of high school. The Sooners, who haven't made more than nine turnovers in any tournament game, didn't panic in the face of their first difficult challenge of the last two weeks.

        Sampson reserved his strongest praise for Price, a rail-thin 6-foot-1 shooting guard. Price poured in 26 points last Thursday against Arizona, then followed with 18 points against Missouri.

        Price's tenacity was the most memorable aspect of the Sooners' triumphant weekend in California.

        Though Missouri's Clarence Gilbert hounded him all afternoon on defense, Price made just enough big shots, while still playing his own tough defense on Gilbert, who went 1-for-16 from the field.

        While McGhee and teammates Ebi Ere and Jabhari Brown made a celebratory pile on the Compaq Center floor, Price and Sampson wrapped each other in a hug that lasted several seconds.

        “Every team needs a pulse. Every team needs a heartbeat,” Sampson said. “Hollis is our heartbeat.”


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