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Oklahoma Looking Something Less Than OK

Injuries to three starters and a key reserve a big concern for Sooners, who play surprising Butler today.

March 28, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — The new ice machine in Oklahoma's athletic training room got plenty of use this week by the Sooner basketball team, the walking wounded of the NCAA tournament.

With three starters and a key reserve nursing injuries, trainer Alex Brown has become a popular interview subject, timely considering March is national athletic trainer month.

"Unfortunately, I've become their poster child," Brown told the Daily Oklahoman.

Top-seeded Oklahoma (26-6) will have to deal with a considerable amount of pain when it plays 12th-seeded Butler (27-5) at 4:10 p.m. (PST) today in an East Regional semifinal at Pepsi Arena. Third-seeded Syracuse (26-5) plays 10th-seeded Auburn (22-11) in the other semifinal at 6:40.

Oklahoma, trying to reach the Final Four for the second year a row, has won five consecutive games in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments despite an ever-expanding injury list. The breakdown:

* Senior guard Hollis Price, the Sooners' leading scorer with an 18.5 average and the Big 12 player of the year, has a strained left groin muscle that limited him to 41 minutes in the team's first two NCAA tournament games.

* Senior point guard Quannas White has a strained ligament in his left knee and a bruised right knee and shin.

* Sophomore forward Johnny Gilbert, another starter, has a bruised back.

* Senior guard Ebi Ere, a former starter before injuries and poor shooting sent him to the bench, has a broken bone in his left wrist and a sprained right wrist. Maybe that explains why he made only three of 19 shots in two games last week.

Price scored a total of eight points in NCAA victories over South Carolina State and California. He sat out practice earlier this week while receiving treatment and hopes to play more effectively in today's game.

Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson said Price and White need to be close to full speed for the Sooners to defeat Butler, a tenacious defensive team that is limiting opponents to 58.8 points a game.

"Our team will go as far as our two senior guards carry us," Sampson said.

He believes Butler is too good to be considered an underdog. The Bulldogs upset Mississippi State and Louisville to reach the Sweet 16 for only the second time. Their previous appearance in a regional semifinal was in 1962.

"I don't want to hear about this Cinderella stuff," Sampson said. "I understand it, but Cinderella doesn't beat Mississippi State and Louisville in back-to-back games.

"They're a tough, hard-nosed team. I think there's a lot of similarities in the way the two teams play. We're tough-minded and we play hard."

And, like Oklahoma, Butler relies on senior guards. Brandon Miller and Darnell Archey, former high school teammates in Indiana, were the heroes of the Bulldogs' two victories last week. Miller made a runner in the lane with 6.2 seconds left to beat Mississippi State, 47-46, and Archey made eight of nine three-point shots and tied a career best with 26 points in the 79-71 second-round stunner over Louisville.

Sampson called Miller "the ultimate point guard" because of his ability to pass, penetrate and shoot from three-point range.

"He's as tough a kid as you're going to find at that position," Sampson said. "I think he's the heart and soul of their team."

Miller and Archey are each shooting 43% from three-point range. Butler's other key player is forward Joel Cornette, a rangy 6-foot-10 senior.

"They run that weave outside and Cornette flashes to the basket and creates three-point shooting opportunities for Archey and Miller," Sampson said. "They have a well-devised plan. It's not complicated, but it's really difficult to stop."

Auburn, the regional's other surprise semifinalist, will be focused on stopping Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony, widely regarded as the best freshman in the nation.

Anthony, who has been noncommittal about whether he will return to Syracuse next season or make himself available for the NBA draft, has yet to play his best in the NCAA tournament. He scored 13 points on five-for-16 shooting in the Orangemen's 68-56 second-round victory over Oklahoma State and scored 17 in a 76-65 victory over Manhattan. He averaged 22.5 points in the regular season.

Senior forward Marquis Daniels came through with clutch performances in Auburn's victories over St. Joseph's and Wake Forest last week. He'll again have to be at the top of his game against Syracuse, which has the advantage of playing close to its upstate New York home.

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