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Sunday, March 30, 2003
Updated: March 31, 1:01 PM ET

No. 1 Sooners lose their way in 2-3 zone

By Sheldon Spencer
ESPN.com

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Kelvin Sampson has been around long enough to know hyperbole when he hears it. The Oklahoma coach also knows a nation watched Syracuse's 2-3 zone smother his No. 1-seeded Sooners.

It was, make no mistake, a big factor in the No. 3 seeded Orangemen's 63-47 victory and Final Four berth.

Gerry McNamara
Syracuse's 2-3 zone left little room for De'Angelo Alexander and the Sooners to operate.

As for any further analysis? Sampson tried to provide the antidote.

"That 2-3 zone is good. But let's not make it out to be Godzilla," Sampson said.

Nice try.

Sampson can try to minimize the zone's impact, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's standby for most of his 27-year tenure was, on this Sunday in Pepsi Arena -- The Thing That Swallowed Time.

The Sooners were outscored 14-3 in the final 8:56 of the first half. Oklahoma led only briefly, 17-16, while Syracuse built a 30-20 lead by halftime on the shuffling-arms and electric-sliding feet of Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, Kueth Duany and any other Orangeman summoned off the bench. Syracuse increased the lead to 38-20 by pitching a shutout for the first 5:01 of the second half.

By then, Syracuse had built a rabbit-proof fence from sideline to sideline. And all that followed were wild shots and misguided passes from All-American guard Hollis Price (eight points), backcourt mate Quannas White and the rest of the shaky Sooners. Oklahoma shot a woeful 31 percent from the floor and committed 19 turnovers.

"It's obvious that our defense was the difference," said Boeheim, who will lead his charges against South Region champion Texas in one national semifinal in New Orleans on Saturday. "We did a great job of sliding and adjusting to what Oklahoma was doing."

Sampson credited the Orange for exploiting its "length" -- each of Syracuse's starters stand taller than the 6-1 tandem of Price and White. Passes into the paint came under heavy pressure, while the pair shot just 4 of 25 combined (1 for 9 in the first half).

"Hollis and Quannas are our meal tickets," Sampson said. "They settle us. They're our cruise control, our accelerator, our gear shift ... They run the thing."

Then again, Syracuse's Jeremy McNeil put it this way: "They were scared to death down in the paint. They didn't want nothing in the paint."

The Sooners (27-7) insisted they feared no one. But they admitted a reluctance to attack the Orange swarm, which seemed abetted by the Syracuse partisan packing the Pepsi. Anthony, the freshman-going-on-top-three NBA draft pick, admitted he found the going on inside easier than he expected.

"Everybody said the Big 12 -- ain't they the Big 12? -- is one of the most physical conferences," said Anthony, the East Regional MVP who finished with game highs of 20 points and 10 rebounds. "But tonight, I don't know what happened. They weren't as physical as everybody thought they were."

Freshman guard Gerry McNamara, who had nine points and five steals, sensed the Orange was going to dominate early. "They called couple of quick time outs and I thought, 'They're really not getting in our zone well at all,'" McNamara said.

Still, Syracuse (28-5) expected an OU rally sooner or later. It never materialized.

"In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'How long is this going to last? How long is it going to last?" McNamara said.

Despite De'Angelo Alexander's occasional baskets -- the freshman scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half -- the Sooners never edged closer than 11 points after intermission. Syracuse, meanwhile, shot 52 percent from the floor and outscored the Sooners 40-24 in the paint. And, while the Sooners praised the Orange, they also insisted their downfall was in some part self-created.

"It wasn't the best zone I've seen," White said. "They did good in the zone, but on the other hand, we didn't attack them at all. We didn't play as well as we're capable of playing."

Boeheim's green group of Orange -- seven freshmen and two sophomores -- weren't perfect. Anthony and company committed a youthful 24 turnovers. Eliminate a few of those, and this rout would have been on earlier. Nevertheless, these freshmen and a trusty zone are bringing Boeheim back to New Orleans with hopes to avenge his 1987 title game loss to Indiana.

But down in the Big Easy, Sampson believes there may be a player who also plays in the Big 12 who might be able to counter the 2-3 zone's tentacles. A certain Big 12 guard who does tend to get to the rim.

"T.J. Ford can do that," Sampson said. "You don't have to have a zone offense when you've got a kid like T.J. Ford. He just goes through you and kicks it out.

"Don't say it's the greatest of all zones because of what they did to us," Sampson reiterated. "To be able to attack any zone, the first thing you have to do is to have people who can really attack and get to the rim off penetration. That's not Hollis' game, that's not Quannas' game."

Oh, and as for a Pepsi Center that could have doubled for Syracuse's Carrier Dome? Sampson said he wasn't "going to play that card" and simply credited the Orange for playing the better game.

Still, the atmosphere and defense combined for an overwhelming effect.

"I thought that was a big comfort zone out there today," Sampson said. "And it wasn't ours."

Sheldon Spencer is an editor at ESPN.com.



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