TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Big and brawny Oklahoma muscled its way
past Niagara and all the good karma the Purple Eagles had going for
them in the NCAA Tournament.
Drew Lavender led six Sooners in double figures with 17 points
in third-seeded Oklahoma's 84-67 victory Thursday in an Austin
Regional game at Arizona's McKale Center.
The Sooners (25-7), who didn't make the tourney last year,
struggled with 46 percent field goal shooting, but were helped out
by solid defense that harassed the Eagles into 16 turnovers. They
next play Utah in the second round Saturday.
"We had to dig in and hang in with our defense," Oklahoma
coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Our offense kind of came and went, but
we scored when we needed to."
Juan Mendez led the 14th-seeded Eagles (20-10) with 22 points
and 15 rebounds. But he missed his first 11 shots in the second
half and finally made a basket with just over a minute left in his
final college game. Fellow senior David Brooks added 16 points
before fouling out.
Mendez and Brooks left the game with 1:09 to play and shared a
group hug with coach Joe Mihalich as Niagara fans chanted, "Thank
"That scene is what makes college basketball special," Sampson
said. "You don't see that in the NBA. They had courage to come to
Niagara and four years later, look what they did."
After trailing by three at halftime, the Eagles got within one
on a basket by Alvin Cruz. But then they went cold, going nearly 12
minutes without a field goal as Oklahoma built a 19-point lead.
"We went out there and played hard, with a chip on our
shoulder," Oklahoma's Taj Gray said. "That's what increased our
level of intensity on defense. We feel like we have a lot of things
to prove, like an underdog."
Cruz's eyes were red and Brooks bowed his head during post-game
"We did something special, we made it to the Tournament," said
Cruz, also a senior. "I was sad that we lost and our college
career is over."
All of Niagara's current players were a decade or more from
being born when the Eagles last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in
1970. Back then, future NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy helped the
Eagles to a 1-2 record under the Tournament's old format.
Murphy sat in Niagara's fan section, looking resplendent in a
purple pinstriped suit and gray snakeskin shoes. Purple-clad
Niagara students chanted his name during a timeout and a smiling
Murphy pointed back at them.
Dolores Mihalich, the 80-year-old coach's mother, sat near
Murphy with her hands clasped and a purple bandanna covering her
head. She is battling colon cancer, which has spread to her liver.
Her son had promised that one day she would see him coach in a
Tournament game. Once the Eagles qualified, she carefully scheduled
her biweekly chemotherapy treatments so she would be strong enough
to travel across the country.
"As heartbroken as we are now, we had our one shining moment
getting here and playing in the Tournament," Mihalich said. "We
don't need another .500 Big 12 or ACC team in the Tournament. We
need more Niagaras."
The 3,548-student school in upstate New York qualified as the
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament
But Oklahoma proved too big and too powerful inside and even its
own plodding performance was more than enough to overcome Niagara.
Gray added 13 points and 13 rebounds; David Godbold, Kevin Bookout
and Lawrence McKenzie added 12 points each. Bookout grabbed 10
rebounds and the Sooners held a 48-37 edge on the boards.
"We are used to that kind of performance from our team,"
Lavender said. "Nobody really averages a lot of points. We have a
really good team and everybody can score in double figures."
Tied at 16-all, the Sooners used a 19-6 run to take their
largest lead of the first half at 35-22. Most of their baskets came
inside, with seven different players scoring, before Godbold capped
the spurt with a 3-pointer.
The Eagles responded by outscoring Oklahoma 12-2 to end the half
trailing 37-34. Mendez had seven points and Lorenzo Miles five.