March 16, 2003

By JAIME ARON
AP Sports Writer

DALLAS - The Oklahoma Sooners are headed into the NCAA tournament on a bit of a roll, having won a third straight Big 12 tournament title.

But if they don't start scoring more points in the second half, they won't last very long.

The No. 6 Sooners led Missouri by 22 with 15:05 left in the title game Sunday, then failed to make another basket. It took two big defensive stands in the final minute to pull out a 49-47 victory.

The NCAA selection committee apparently was more swayed by the hot start than the cold finish, giving star Hollis Price and Oklahoma (24-6) the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

Missouri (21-10) will play No. 11 Southern Illinois on Thursday in Indianapolis.

Though coach Kelvin Sampson says these Sooners aren't as strong as last year's team that reached the Final Four, they'll start trying to earn a return trip Thursday when they play South Carolina State in Oklahoma City.

"For me to rack my brain about what's wrong would be to make something way too complicated out of something simple," Sampson said. "We don't go into halftime and say, 'Let's slow down, let's get conservative, let's not make any shots and let them come back on us.' Contrary to belief, I'd like for them to extend the lead."

Sampson is looking forward to the NCAA pace of two games in three days. He said playing three games in three days is what caused Oklahoma's collapse Sunday.

The Sooners scored only 12 points in the second half, one day after getting only 18 in the second half of a semifinal against Texas Tech. OU needed overtime to get past the Red Raiders.

OU's meltdown included 14 straight missed shots - some wide open, some forced. Quannas White hit the side of the backboard one time and Price had to throw up a 35-footer because the shot clock was about to expire.

Oklahoma also had seven turnovers, including a 3-second violation, a shot-clock violation, traveling and several passes out of bounds, like when White stumbled and fell backwards just after Price tossed him the ball.

"We've got to find a way to knock down our open shots," said Price, who scored 14 points, including the 3-pointer that turned out to be the Sooners' final field goal. "We've got to be more aggressive down the stretch - way more than we were in the second half."

Price is Oklahoma's leader in every sense, which is why Sooners fans gasped when he was helped off the court in the final minute. He went down hard several times and in the first half had to have his right knee taped.

Price, the Big 12 player of the year and the tournament MVP, said all he had was a pulled groin muscle and promised he'd be fine Thursday.

Missouri also can use some rest after playing four times in four days. The Tigers overcame an 18-point deficit against Nebraska, beat No. 23 Oklahoma State on a short jumper at the buzzer and came back from 11 down in the second half against No. 4 Kansas - before Sunday's frenetic finish.

"I thought we played like champions," coach Quin Snyder said. "The effort we showed in the second half was a championship effort. That's what you need to take into the NCAAs."

The Tigers came to Dallas confident of getting an at-large berth despite having lost two in a row, three of five and five of 10.

After the three thrilling wins to reach the finals, it would've been understandable if they ran out of gas after Oklahoma hit five straight 3-pointers to lead 37-18 at halftime, or when OU stretched it to 46-24.

But Snyder told the team at halftime that they would get hot and the Sooners would cool off. He said they needed to make a run to get back into the game and another to win it.

Jimmy McKinney scored seven points in an 11-0 run that ended when Oklahoma's De'Angelo Alexander hit two free throws with 8:49 left. The Sooners wouldn't score again until Ebi Ere it a free throw with 0.3 seconds left.

Arthur Johnson, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds, hit many big shots to drive the rally, then Travon Bryant hit a 3-pointer with 1:25 left to get Missouri to 48-47. Ricky Clemons had a chance to put the Tigers ahead for the first time and got a good look at a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 16 seconds left, but missed.

Ere ended up at the free throw line with 11 seconds to go and missed the front end of a 1-and-1, giving Missouri another chance. Leading scorer Rickey Paulding drove for a layup and his shot went in and out.

White grabbed the rebound while on the ground and alertly called timeout with 0.8 seconds left. Had he gotten tied up, the Tigers would've gotten the ball on the possession arrow.

White, who had 10 points and six assists, joined Price on the all-tournament team, as did Johnson and Paulding. Texas Tech's Andre Emmett rounded out the squad.

Missouri was in the Big 12 tournament finals for the first time since 1997. The Tigers haven't won a league tournament since '93.

Oklahoma had beaten Missouri nine straight times, including in the NCAA regional finals last season, before the Tigers won by 15 last month. It was the Sooners' most lopsided loss of the season.