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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Force Is With Lucas at End

Oklahoma State guard makes a three-pointer, Saint Joseph's Nelson misses with a chance to tie, and the Cowboys advance, 64-62.

March 28, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — John Lucas played the worst half of his basketball life.

He missed all five three-point shots he tried, hoisted up three airballs and probably wished he could have taken the first flight out of Continental Airlines Arena.

"I was horrible," Lucas said. "I mean absolutely horrible."

But there are second chances in life and, more important for Lucas, a second half.

His three-point shot with 6.9 seconds remaining lifted Oklahoma State to a 64-62 victory over Saint Joseph's on Saturday night in the East Rutherford Regional final.

That clinched a Final Four berth for the Cowboys, who will face today's Georgia Tech-Kansas winner next Saturday in San Antonio.

Lucas' shot capped about as good a regional final finish as you'll see.

Only seconds before, with 29 seconds left, Saint Joseph's forward Pat Carroll made a three-point shot that had put the Hawks up, 62-61.

It also was a vindication shot for Carroll, only the third basket he'd made all night.

Carroll wanted to celebrate, but there wasn't time.

"It felt good for about two seconds, to be honest," Carroll said of his shot. "Everything goes so fast in this game."

Sure enough, Oklahoma State, out of timeouts, scurried downcourt looking to dull the roar.

Lucas worked the ball inside to Joey Graham, who fumbled it briefly and then fired a return pass to his point guard, who had slipped back of the three-point arc, left of the basket.

Saint Joseph guard Tyrone Barley, a tenacious defender, ran at Lucas, but, as Barley said, "I just couldn't get there fast enough."

After Lucas' shot, Saint Joseph's had one last chance and Jameer Nelson, the likely national player of the year, on its side.

"Who better would you want the ball in their hands at the end of the game?" Carroll said later.

For one of the few times in his career, though, the 5-foot-11 Nelson came up short.

With 6-4 Daniel Bobik running straight at him, Nelson's straight-away jump shot clanked off the rim.

The miss shocked Nelson.

"Every time I shoot the ball I think it's in," he would say.

Not this time.

Lucas grabbed the ball and heaved it toward the rafters and that was that.

Oklahoma State, which improved to 31-3 with the victory, replaced 30-2 Saint Joseph's as this year's feel-good story.

Eddie Sutton, the 68-year-old coach who returned to Oklahoma State in 1990, his career in shambles after a battle with the bottle and a scandal at Kentucky, has the Cowboys back in the Final Four, for the first time since 1995, when they lost to eventual champion UCLA.

Sutton's face beamed as he climbed the ladder and, with a pair of scissors, snipped the last few pieces of net.

"I probably don't have that many more opportunities to get there again," he would say.

Sutton really coached his way to this one, conceiving a game plan to stop Saint Joseph's perimeter game.

The Hawks entered the game averaging 80 points a game.

Saturday, they got 62.

The Hawks entered the game making 40% of their three-point attempts.

Saturday, they made eight of 26 (30.8%).

Oklahoma State held Nelson, who averages 23 points a game, to 17.

Nelson missed 12 of his 18 shots.

Instead of matching Lucas, his 5-11 guard, against Nelson, Sutton decided to hawk the Hawk with the 6-4 Bobik.

"We thought the size might bother him," Sutton said of the coverage plan.

After the game, Cowboy guard Tony Allen said he knew Nelson's final attempt would fall short.

"I felt he was kind of tired," Allen said. "I knew fatigue was setting in."

Bobik's long arms changed the trajectory on some of Nelson's shots while he also took the defensive pressure off Lucas.

Sure enough, in the end, Lucas' legs were fresh enough to launch the three-point shot that launched the Cowboys to San Antonio.

After the game, Lucas had to pinch himself. A year ago, he was a sophomore guard riding the pine of a Baylor program that would become a national disgrace.

Lucas, the son of former Maryland and NBA star John Lucas, found refuge in Stillwater.

His confidence was so restored that making only one of his six shots in the first half did not stop him from shooting in the second. He scored 17 of his team-high 19 points after intermission.

Afterward, he found his dad in the stands for a hug.

"Way to fight back," the elder Lucas told his son.

Of course, the season had to end for one team Saturday. Too bad it was Saint Joe's.

The Hawks put all their feathers on the line here and nearly silenced the doubters.

Saint Joe's entered the game as the top-seeded team but was a two-point underdog to No. 2 Oklahoma State. Funny how that worked out.

The Hawks were trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1961, when they lost to Ohio State in the national semifinals and ultimately had to vacate their consolation-prize finish because of a point-shaving scandal.

This year's story promised a happier ending.

Nelson, the greatest player in school history, ended his career on his back, on the court, after his last-second miss.

"He's gone in terms of a uniform," Saint Joe's Coach Phil Martelli said of his top Hawk. "But he'll never be gone from Saint Joe's basketball."

After the buzzer, a couple of Oklahoma State players walked over to pick Nelson off the floor.

Lucas, the game's hero, extended an olive branch to the would-be hero.

"He's a gutsy player, he plays with a lot of heart," Lucas said of Nelson. "He's the player of the year in basketball. You've got to respect that. You have to acknowledge that if you're a fan of basketball."

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