SOONERS BETTER Win means return by Oklahoma to Final Four
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.
Go to gallery from the game.
for a photo
Oklahoma’s Nyeshia Stevenson, selected the regional’s top player, couldn’t conceal her joy Tuesday night.
Oklahoma’s Joanna McFarland and Danielle Robinson (right) surrounded Kentucky’s Victoria Dunlap on Tuesday.