Sooners deny upset-minded Niagara, 84-67

Niagara forward Juan Mendez is covered closely by Oklahoma forward Johnnie Gilbert and forward Kevin Bookout during the first half of OU's 84-67 first round NCAA win Thursday in Tucson, Ariz. Drew Lavender led the Sooners with 17 points. The Sooners will play sixth-seeded Utah Saturday. The tip-off time for Saturday's game has yet to be announced. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Cinderella's slipper didn't fit, at least not in a first round match-up between third-seeded Oklahoma and 14th-seeded Niagara Thursday in Tucson.

Drew Lavender scored a team-high 17 points and Taj Gray ignited a second half run that helped the Sooners (25-7) pull away from the upset-minded Purple Eagles (20-10) and advance to Saturday's second round with an 84-67 win.

"Our offense came and went in spurts, but the story of the game was our defense in the second half," said OU head coach Kelvin Sampson, whose Sooners held Niagara to just 28.9 percent shooting from the field in the final 20 minutes. "Our kids really showed their mettle. These are NCAA tournament games, so you just never know. Our kids hung in there with their defense."

Oklahoma jumped out to a 35-22 lead after a David Godbold 3-pointer with 5:18 to go in the first half, but the Purple Eagles went on a 12-2 run from that point on to cut OU's lead to 37-34 at halftime.

Niagara quickly tied the game with a 3-pointer on their second possession of the second half, but the Sooners answered with a 7-2 run over the next two minutes to push the lead to 44-39.

The Purple Eagles would cut the lead back to 44-43 at the 17:04 mark, but Oklahoma responded again, this time with a 12-2 run to take the lead for good and a 56-45 lead with 12:29 left. Gray, who finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, scored nine second-half points and the final six, including two athletic alley-oop finishes, in the 12-2 run.

Niagara guard Alvin Cruz would cut the lead back to nine with two free throws at the 11:38 mark, but OU then went on 14-4 run to extend the lead to 70-51 and take control of the game open for good.

Oklahoma, who outrebounded the Purple Eagles 44-29, were also stout defensively holding the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions to just 33.3 percent shooting (24-of-72) and 18 points under their season average. OU shot 47.9 percent (34-of-71) from the field.

In all, six different Sooners reached double digits in scoring. Joining Lavender and Gray in double figures, were Godbold (12), Lawrence McKenzie (12), Kevin Bookout (12) and Johnnie Gilbert (10).

OU also did a good job of containing Niagara forward and MAAC conference player of the year Juan Mendez. Mendez finished with 22 points, one below his season average, but was just 6-for-20 from the field.

"They forced us to take shots we had to take, and forced us to give the ball up," said Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich said. "They were the best players he (Mendez) has played against in his career."

In the end, Mihalich said that OU's depth was the difference.

"We've got six players that we could play against anyone in the country," Mihalich said. "After that it a big loss. When they took out three players, they didn't lose much. They could win it all. They are a top-10 or 12 team."

The Sooners now advance to Saturday's second round matchup against sixth-seeded Utah. The Utes (28-5) knocked off 11th-seeded UTEP 60-54 late Thursday afternoon.

OU-Niagara Box Score

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