Sooners talk Tigers, tourney

Sooners Illustrated Editor Jay C. Upchurch talked with Drew Lavender and Terrell Everett (pictured above) after Oklahoma's 83-79 Big 12 quarterfinal win over Missouri Friday in Kansas City. Oklahoma (24-6) will play Texas Tech (19-9) in the semifinals Saturday at 1 p.m. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Oklahoma is in the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners had their Dance ticket stamped last weekend when they clinched a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title. The chain of events that included OU's rousing 20-point road triumph over Texas Tech also helped secure no worse than a No. 4 seed for Kelvin Sampson's crew.

But the Sooners are thinking bigger. And as they head into Saturday's semifinal action of the Big 12 Tourney, there's not reason to think they can't get it.

The "it" being a better seed and a spot in the Oklahoma City regional for the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. And Friday afternoon's 83-79 victory over Missouri inched the Sooners a step closer to accomplishing both.

As the NCAA Selection Committee toils over the final decisions in what has become an even more difficult process than usual, Sampson's crew is looming large on the board, under the category of "hottest teams in the country."

A No. 3 seed is in the bag and the chances of the Sooners getting an invite to OKC looking better by the minute, as upsets and late-season slumps have been the norm during the first week of March Madness.

Not that it's been easy. And Friday's rematch with Mizzou was the perfect example. OU needed every ounce of energy to send the Tigers packing at the end of their quarterfinal battle.

The Sooners led by as many as 17 in the early game, but watched the Tigers take their first lead (64-62) with 4:36 remaining. The frenetic finish may have been just what OU needed to maintain its edge for the rest of the weekend, according to sophomore guard Drew Lavender.

Sooners Illustrated editor Jay C. Upchurch visited Lavender and teammate Terrell Everett in the locker room after the Mizzou game:

SIQ: What do you think this win does for your possible seeding and the team's tournament future?

Everett: I don't really know. All we are interested in right now is playing and winning. We can't get caught up thinking about where we're going or who we're playing. Wherever they send us, we're going to go there looking to win.

Lavender: Our whole focus right now is to win this tournament. We aren't thinking about anything but bringing that trophy back to Oklahoma. If we start worrying about where they are going to seed us or where they are going to send us then we're probably not where we need to be mentally. Of course, we'd like to be a high seed and play in Oklahoma City, but the best way to make those things happen is to do well here in Kansas City.

SIQ: Today's game was a little similar to what happened up at Columbia when Missouri erased a big lead and came back to beat you guys. What was the difference today?

Everett: (Laughing) We won today. No, I just think we've learned how to be tougher mentally in those kinds of situations. We let it slip away from us the first time we play them, but we weren't going to let that happen today.

Lavender: We never panicked. We just stayed calm and focused on what we had to do to win the game. We didn't panic the first time we played them, but we didn't take care of business like we could have.

SIQ: What areas did you feel this team needed to be mentally tougher in?

Everett: All of them, but mostly knocking down our free throws in key situations, which we did today, and making key stops on the defensive end when you have to have them. I think everyone saw today that when the game was on the line, we made the plays we had to to win.

Lavender: We've been putting teams away lately. I think our focus as a team has been real good the last few games. It's almost like Missouri likes to play from behind - you saw it against Kansas early and they did it against us the last time we played. The key is being tougher mentally by knowing your opponent and preparing well.

SIQ: Was there a point when you felt it slipping away?

Everett: No. I mean we knew the situation and we knew they were going to make a run at us. That's kind of how they like to play. So, we knew we were just going to have to answer the challenge when it came. But we stayed positive the whole entire game.

Lavender: Everyone kept saying ‘we've got to finish this game strong. We knew it was not going to be easy and it wasn't. But I don't think anyone on this team ever let it enter their minds that the game was skipping away.

SIQ: Since there is no real go-to guy on this team, does that make it harder or easier when you need a bucket in the closing minutes of a close game?

Lavender: I think it's better because we have so many options. It makes it harder for a team to focus its defense on one or two guys. We've got five or six guys who are not afraid to take the big shot when we need it. I believe that has helped make us a better team.

Everett: I agree. We'd probably like to pound it into Kevin (Bookout) or Taj (Gray), but if that option isn't there then we've got several other directions we can look to.

SIQ: What makes this team a legitimate threat to win the tourney title?

Lavender: Our chemistry is good. We continue to grow as a team and get better and better in all the things we are trying to do. I know a lot of people are talking about next season with this team, but we like our chances as a team right now.

Everett: I think that's it - we are playing our best basketball at the right time and everyone knows their roles with this team. We have a lot of really good players who are playing together as a whole. When that happens, you have a chance to win every time you play.

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