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That's 2 for the Show

OKLAHOMA 81, MIZZOU 75: The Sooners' ninth win in a row over the Tigers earns their first trip to the Final Four since '88.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- 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 coolness, Oklahoma rolled to its first national semifinal since 1988 with an 81-75 victory over 12th-seeded Missouri on Saturday.

Hollis Price got the last of his 18 points on two free throws with six seconds left to give the Sooners their 12th straight victory and a ticket to Atlanta.

"Coach goes to the Final Four every year, but he never takes us," Price said with a grin. "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 Region, 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 coaches, Sampson makes a regular pilgrimage to the Final Four, where he watches his profession's best and dreams of getting his chance. Most seasons, he was unable even to take his wife because of 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 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 less than 15 minutes left and Oklahoma leading by eight that precipitated a 10-3 Missouri run. The spurt pulled the Tigers within 54-53.

But Oklahoma never trailed in the second half, though it also never pulled away from the pesky Tigers, the lowest-seeded team to advance to the round of eight.

McGhee scored 15, 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 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.

"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."

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