March 28, 2003
By JOHN KEKIS
AP Sports Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. - Ebi Ere was Oklahoma's forgotten man. Not anymore.
Playing with a broken bone in his left wrist, Ere scored 25 points as the top-seeded Sooners ended Butler's surprising run with a 65-54 win Friday night in the semifinals of the East Regional.
Not bad for a player who asked coach Kelvin Sampson to take him out of the lineup in January after his production plummeted.
"What really helped me out was knowing that other players on our team could step up at times when I didn't play good over a long stretch, that our team could still win," said Ere, who scored just 12 points in the first two rounds.
"I just knew that if I could get back on track that we'd be better than we were then," he said.
Ere helped put Oklahoma (27-6) within one victory of its second consecutive Final Four. The Sooners will meet Syracuse or Auburn on Sunday for a berth in New Orleans.
The 12th-seeded Bulldogs were the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament after pulling off two big upsets against Mississippi State and Louisville. The only 12th seed ever to advance to a regional final was Missouri, which made it there last year.
"We were part of something special," said Butler center Joel Cornette, who led the Bulldogs with 21 points and eight rebounds. "The special thing wasn't making it here to the Sweet 16. It was being together. Being with these 13 guys was the best experience of my life. Every guy in that locker room knows how I feel about him. These were 14 brothers, a big family that laughed, cried, enjoyed every minute of it."
Butler, 27-6 and regular-season champions of the Horizon League, wasn't able to match Missouri's feat because it never got its perimeter game going against the active Oklahoma defense, which held the Bulldogs to 4-of-13 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
The screens that had worked so well before never clicked, and Butler had to go inside to score. And when the Bulldogs missed, there weren't many second chances - Oklahoma dominated the glass 39-21, including 19 offensive rebounds.
"The one place we felt we could exploit Butler was on the offensive boards," Sampson said. "I thought we played smart. When you're playing a team like Butler, playing hard is not enough. I thought our kids were relentless. We were tough tonight and I thought we were extremely smart."
Darnell Archey, who hit eight 3-pointers in the win over Louisville, scored six points and attempted only three 3s. Duane Lightfoot, Butler's other big man, had eight points and Brandon Miller and Mike Monserez each had seven.
Butler was more worried about Hollis Price, the Sooners' leading scorer who was nursing a tear in his left groin.
Oklahoma made it to the round of 16 with virtually no production from Price, who averaged 19 points during the season. He had only eight points in the tournament before Friday.
Price had 12 points and five assists, but it was Ere who was the star.
Ere scored 10 points in the final four minutes of the first half. And when the Bulldogs rallied to within 50-47 on a 3 by Monserez with 6:15 left, Ere hit a tough shot in the lane over Lightfoot, was fouled, and hit the free throw to put the Sooners up 53-47.
Ere, who also had eight rebounds, followed that with a hook at 5:20 after dribbling across the lane, and Price fed Kevin Bookout for an easy layup to boost the lead to 57-49 with 3:16 to go. Bookout finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.
Oklahoma, Big 12 champion for the third straight year, took a 40-28 lead on Ere's jumper. Cornette then scored nine of Butler's next 11 points, and his reverse layup with 9:53 left moved the Bulldogs to 44-39.
"They did a great job tonight taking away the 3," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "We just could not generate offense beyond the arc."
Neither team led by more than three points in the first 15 minutes, but after Cornette's free throw tied it at 20, the Sooners began to assert themselves, dominating the glass and riding Ere's scoring. Oklahoma held a 19-9 edge on the boards at the break, 12 on the offensive glass, and had 20 second-chance points to none for Butler.
Archey, guarded much of the time by Price, missed his only 3-point attempt in the first half and hit his only shot from beyond the arc 46 seconds into the second period.