SOON­ERS BET­TER Win means re­turn by Ok­la­homa to Fi­nal Four

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - SPORTS DAILY - By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Fi­nal Four is set. Headed to San An­to­nio is the over­whelm­ing fa­vorite in Con­necti­cut, the team be­lieved to be the main chal­lenger in Stan­ford, the team with the most in­trigu­ing player in Bay­lor and Brit­tney Griner.

And, get this, Ok­la­homa, an 88-68 win­ner over Ken­tucky in the Kansas City Re­gional fi­nal on Tues­day at the Sprint Cen­ter.

From a bracket stand­point, cut­ting nets and don­ning the cham­pi­onship T-shirts and caps makes sense for the third-seeded Soon­ers. But add up the ob­sta­cles and it seems far-fetched that Ok­la­homa would be headed to its sec­ond straight Fi­nal Four and third in Coach Sherri Coale’s ten­ure.

“That puts us in a dif­fer­ent league,” Coale said. “That’s a dif­fer­ent deal.”

It’s the level of cham­pi­onship con­sis­tency, and ear­lier this sea­son it seemed im­prob­a­ble.

The Soon­ers had to rein­vent them­selves when the dom­i­nant Paris twins, Court­ney and Ashley, moved on. Then they had to re­shape them­selves when last year’s Big 12 fresh­man of the year Whit­ney Hand was lost for the sea­son in Novem­ber be­cause of a knee in­jury.

Ok­la­homa re­grouped enough to

2fin­ish tied for sec­ond in the Big 12. The Soon­ers en­tered the post­sea­son with a 23-10 record, and didn’t look like world­beat­ers in their first NCAA games against South Dakota State and Arkansas Lit­tle-Rock.

But Ok­la­homa was ter­rific in Kansas City, out­last­ing sec­ond-seeded Notre Dame in over­time and jet­ting past a Ken­tucky team that had taken out topseeded Ne­braska in the Sweet 16.

The Soon­ers crushed the Cats with quick­ness from Nyeshia Steven­son and Danielle Robin­son. They went hard to the hoops on half-court sets, and on de­fense they got de­flec­tions that led to run-out bas­kets.

Steven­son fin­ished with 31 points and five steals and was se­lected the re­gional’s most out­stand­ing player. Robin­son had 16 points and six as­sists.

“I thought those two re­ally con­trolled the game,” Ken­tucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They were out­stand­ing vet­eran guards who were not go­ing to be de­nied.”

For­ward Amanda Thomp­son chipped in 17 points and 14 re­bounds.

All that of­fense led to an amaz­ing shoot­ing night. Ok­la­homa hit 61.5 per­cent of its shots against a usu­ally stout Ken­tucky de­fense. In­side the three-point arc, the Soon­ers made 27 of 37 shots.

But early on, Ok­la­homa didn’t look like it be­longed on the same floor with Ken­tucky.

The Wild­cats set a dizzy­ing early pace that nearly blew the Soon­ers out of the build­ing.

Ken­tucky scored on five of its first seven pos­ses­sions and took a 10-2 lead.

The Wild­cats’ pres­sure de­fense both­ered the Soon­ers, who had six turnovers be­fore their first field goal — a Thomp­son 15-footer nearly 61⁄ min­utes in that made it 15-4.

“I was think­ing, ‘Oh, my good­ness, it’s about to be one of th­ese kinds of games,’ ” Thomp­son said.

But Thomp­son did some­thing about it, go­ing ag­gres­sively to the boards and knock­ing down that jumper.

By then, Ok­la­homa had started play­ing a lit­tle de­fense of its own. The Soon­ers chucked their man de­fense and switched to zone, and it was as if the game started over.

Over a 7-minute stretch, the Soon­ers outscored Ken­tucky 30-12 as de­fen­sive stops gen­er­ated of­fen­sive con­fi­dence.

“That was about the best zone we played all sea­son,” Robin­son said. “I’m happy that it worked.”

The Soon­ers started at­tack­ing the bas­ket and tied it at 25-25 on Steven­son’s drive. They took the lead on Robin­son’s three-point play.

Robin­son, play­ing on top of the zone, was the crit­i­cal com­po­nent on de­fense. Ken­tucky had trou­ble ma­neu­ver­ing around her quick­ness and turned it over on three straight pos­ses­sions.

The Soon­ers’ 43-39 half­time lead steadily in­creased in the sec­ond half as the Wild­cats couldn’t come up with a sec­ond scor­ing source. South­east­ern Con­fer­ence player of the year Vic­to­ria Dun­lap kept up her pro­duc­tion. She had 18 at half­time and fin­ished with 31. No­body else scored in dou­ble dig­its for Ken­tucky, 28-8, which con­cluded the best sea­son in the pro­gram’s his­tory.

“This was an amaz­ing sea­son,” Dun­lap said.

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Go to gallery from the game.

for a photo

SHANE KEYSER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Ok­la­homa’s Nyeshia Steven­son, se­lected the re­gional’s top player, couldn’t con­ceal her joy Tues­day night.

SHANE KEYSER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Ok­la­homa’s Joanna McFar­land and Danielle Robin­son (right) sur­rounded Ken­tucky’s Vic­to­ria Dun­lap on Tues­day.

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