SAN ANTONIO - From near extinction to national title game. Oklahoma's amazing rebuilding project just keeps getting better.
Twelve years after the school nearly disbanded a program in disarray, the Sooners earned a shot at their first NCAA championship with a 86-71 win over Duke in the national semifinals Friday night.
Rosalind Ross scored a career-high 26 points, hitting 4-of-8 3-pointers and grabbing 10 rebounds for the Sooners, who rushed out to an early lead and held off Duke's second half rally.
The Sooners (32-3), who were just 5-22 in coach Sherri Coale's first season six years ago, will play either Tennessee or Connecticut in Sunday night's championship game.
"This is the moment we've all been waiting for. To get to the Final Four and now we're in the championship game," Ross said in the Sooners' locker room.
"When I came in here, I wanted to cry," she said.
Iciss Tillis scored 19 to lead Duke (31-4), which cut an 18-point deficit to two in the second half but couldn't take the lead before the Sooners pulled away late with a 22-5 run.
The Sooners shot 46 percent from the floor and made 21 of 24 free throws.
The loss snapped Duke's 22-game winning streak. It was the second-longest winning streak in the nation behind UConn (37-0).
In 1990, Oklahoma officials had decided to drop the women's basketball program that was drawing only dozens of fans and was expensive to keep. But an outcry from coaches around the country prompted school officials to resurrect it within days.
Fittingly, the Sooners played Friday night in front of 29,619 at the Alamodome - the largest crowd for a women's college basketball game.
Now, the Sooners will be the first Big 12 team to play for the national title in the league's six-year history.
The women's program also finds itself on par with the men's team, which is also in the Final Four this weekend. Oklahoma is just the third school to send its men's and women's team to national semfinals in the same season.
The Sooners looked jittery in the opening minutes of their first Final Four appearance, missing seven of their first nine shots. Duke's Alana Beard hit a 3-pointer to open the game and Blue Devils led 10-7 after the first four minutes.
Oklahoma settled down when Jamie Talbert hit consecutive layups and Stacey Dales hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Oklahoma its first lead at 14-13.
The Sooners never trailed again. Dales converted a driving layup to cap a 9-0 Oklahoma run as the Blue Devils went scoreless on eight straight possessions.
Oklahoma extended their lead when Ross hit another 3 from the corner and another Dales jumper made it 27-15 with 8:53 left in the half.
"I just felt we had great balance all along the way," said Dales, the All-American who is considered the key player behind OU's resurgence under Coale.
The Sooners were just as good on the other end. Frustrated by Oklahoma's defense, Duke had to slow down its transition into a halfcourt game.
Instead of pushing the ball inside, the Blue Devils started settling for long-range jumpers that seldom found their mark. Duke went just 1-of-11 from the floor in the Sooners' 20-2 run.
"You can tell they have four seniors on the floor most times," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. Duke shot just 39 percent from the floor and committed 16 turnovers.
"We didn't make some of the smartest decisions we've ever made."
The Sooners were especially effective in limiting Beard. The All-American shot 58 percent from the floor for the season but was just 3-of-10 and was scoreless over the last eight minutes of the half.
Beard, who averaged 20 points during the season, finished with 15 on 6-of-15 shooting.
"We just played really good defense," Ross said. "I felt we could pressure the guards and that's what me and LaNeishea (Caufield) did."
Duke, which has just eight players on its roster and only one senior, finally snapped out of the slump with five consecutive free throws that cut the Oklahoma lead to 29-24. But Beard blew a fast-break layup that would have trimmed it to three.
It was a costly miss as OU's Ross answered with her second 3-pointer and the Sooners closed the half with an 11-4 run for a 40-28 lead.
"We couldn't ever get it together. We weren't ever smooth," Tillis said.
Oklahoma stretched the lead as high as 54-37 with 16:03 to play when Dales scored five straight on a 3-pointer and a jumper from the key.
Threatened with a blowout, Duke finally untracked its transition offense behind Beard and Tillis, who started getting closer to basket.
Tillis scored 10 points in a 25-10 Duke run that cut Oklahoma's lead to 64-62 when Beard drove the baseline and fed Michele Matyasovsky for an easy layup with 7:49 to play.
But the run wouldn't last. Caton Hill hit another 3-pointer, and Ross made another 3-pointer that rolled around the rim before falling to push OU's lead back to 72-63.
"We wanted to feed the ball to (Ross)," Hill said. "We did and she was automatic."
Instead of calling a timeout when Duke threatened to take the lead, Coale decided to let her team create its own rally.
"I waited because these guys never cease to amaze me," Coale said. "Caton is clutch. In a pressure game, she always thinks she's going to make it. So you let them take that shot."
"Hill put the dagger in us," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said.
Duke then committed two straight turnovers that Ross converted into a fast-break layup and a 3-pointer off a pass from Dales to make it 81-65 with 3:27 left and put the game out of reach.