Oklahoma's Fire Melts Arizona, 86-78
By John Feinstein
Today, in the national semifinals, fire met ice. Fire won. Hounding the Wildcats (35-3) into playing their style for most of the game's 40 minutes, the Sooners beat them, 86-78, to advance to Monday's final in Kemper Arena against Kansas. Oklahoma (35-3) won with great inside play -- Harvey Grant and Stacey King each scored 21 points -- just enough outside shooting and some significant help from its bench.
But most of all, the Sooners won with defense, their ace all season. "I think anyone who didn't think Oklahoma is a great defensive team found out different today," said Arizona Coach Lute Olson. "When we made our runs in the second half, they came up with big turnovers and a couple big hustle plays. They just never let up."
Not letting up has been this Oklahoma team's trademark. Today, after trailing, 9-2, early, the Sooners went on a 34-13 tear during a 13 minute stretch that put them up, 36-22. For the rest of the evening, Arizona was climbing uphill.
"Their pressure really gave us a lot of trouble," said Arizona's Sean Elliott, who was the game's leading scorer with 31 points. "The way they make you run up and down the floor is an incredible drain on your body. At the end of the first half I was exhausted just trying to keep up with the other guys."
It was during those late stages of the first half, when Elliott was committing four of his six turnovers, that Oklahoma took control. The Sooners took the lead for good on a short bank shot by King that put them up, 14-13, with 11:24 to go.
From that point on, Arizona was gasping trying to keep up with the torrid Sooners. "We knew it would be a game of spurts," said Oklahoma Coach Billy Tubbs. "I thought at times we played spotty but at other times we played great. But whenever there was pressure on us, we answered the call."
Mostly, Grant and King were answering, with an important boost from Andre Wiley, who came off the bench to score 11 points when King got into second half foul trouble.
Olson made a decision before the game not to automatically double down on Grant and King when the ball went into the low post. Instead, he told his players to try to slap it free when the OU big men put the ball on the floor. King and Grant confounded that strategy by catching the ball and shooting it without dribbling.
"We had seen in our scouting report where we could get the ball and get our shots off," King said. "We just went to those spots and shot."
Because Arizona was so conscious about spotting up on the Sooners' three-point shooters, they limited the Sooners, who have averaged 21 three-point attempts a game, to 14. But in doing so, the Wildcats sacrificed the inside.
What killed the Wildcats, though, was their shooting. After their quick start, they finished the first half shooting just 39 percent. Even Elliott, after making his first three, missed nine of his next 11. Steve Kerr, a 60 percent shooter from three point range, was one for six in the first half and two for 12 for the game.
"I just missed wide-open shots that I normally make," Kerr said. "It was just one of those days. But unfortunately this is the Final Four and you can't afford to have one of those days. They did a great job on defense. They're easily the quickest team we've played. But the shots were there."
All season, Oklahoma has put opponents in holes. Today was no different. At halftime, the lead was 36-22 and there was the sense that Arizona would need a near-perfect second half to have a chance.
For seven minutes, the Wildcats took a crack at it. With Anthony Cook (16 points) and Tom Tolbert (11 points, 13 rebounds) reviving after somnambulent first halves to give Elliott some help, Arizona came back. A Tolbert tip-in followed by a Tolbert circus shot off-balance in the lane cut the Oklahoma lead to 47-40.
Then, Jud Buechler came off the bench to give the Wildcats a lift with two quick buckets, the second off a pretty Kerr feed cutting the lead to 50-46 with 14:15 still left. King made a free throw to make it 51-46, but Elliott produced the most spectacular move of the day, a spinning drive down the lane that ended in a thunderous dunk. Suddenly, it was 51-48 and Oklahoma looked shocked.
"I thought we did a great job coming out the way we did in the second half and making that run," Olson said. "But they took the best we had and came right back. Great teams do that."
What Oklahoma does in that situation is simple: "When in doubt, go to Harvey and Stacey," Ricky Grace explained. "That's what we've done all year."
After Elliott's dunk, Grant was fouled inside and made two free throws. King scored on a quick move inside and then Grace chipped in with a three-pointer. In a matter of two minutes, the lead was back to 58-49.
Arizona didn't die, though. Elliott came up with one last binge, a short jumper and two three-point plays, one the old-fashioned way -- inside -- the other the new-fangled way -- outside. The latter cut the lead to 62-57 and, with 6:11 left, it looked like a game.
Oklahoma would have none of that. "We just knew that as long as we kept playing our defense we weren't going to lose," said Dave Sieger, who chased Elliott for much of the day. "Even when we go to our bench, we don't lose much on defense."
Tubbs had to go to his bench with more than nine minutes left when King picked up his fourth foul. But Wiley, four inches shorter at 6-6, came in and the Sooners barely missed a beat. If there was a key possession, it came right after Elliott's three-pointer. Sieger threw up a three-point brick from the corner but the rebound came long and, as the Wildcats stood as if transfixed, Sieger grabbed it on a hop and put it in for a 64-57 lead.
Elliott missed and Wiley made two foul shots. Ken Lofton missed a three-pointer and Grant made two foul shots. Lofton threw a bad pass and Grant hit a baseline jumper. The run was 8-0, the lead was 70-57, there was 4:15 left on the clock and Arizona, fouling desperately, never got closer than eight again.
When two teams with a combined 69-5 record meet, they make some big plays. Today though, a team that shot 55 percent for the year, shot 44 percent. A team that shot 49 percent from three-point range shot six of 23.
Someone asked Kerr if Oklahoma had an advantage having played here in the Big Eight tournament. "Nope," Kerr said. "I made every shot in warmups. I liked this place."
He managed a smile. "Unfortunately," he said, "it didn't like me."
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