NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma forward Aaron McGhee is living up to his nickname, and the Sooners couldn't be happier.
Known to his friends as ``Ace,'' McGhee has been just that for the second-seeded Sooners, who play No. 3 seed Arizona on Thursday in the NCAA West Regional semifinals. He averaged 25.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in the first two tournament games.
``What you're seeing now, this kid always had that,'' coach Kelvin Sampson said. ``This is not a surprise to any of us. This is a kid who had over 40 points in junior college 10 times. That's what this kid was recruited for, but he had to mature.''
Last year, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound McGhee averaged 12.9 points and 4.8 rebounds and struggled with foul trouble, which resulted in inconsistent play. In the second game of this season, he had four points and zero rebounds in a loss at Michigan State, which raised some eyebrows.
But Sampson said that instead of moping after that game, McGhee worked even harder in practice.
``He didn't get down on himself,'' Sampson said. ``He understood that the way to bounce back is through patience with our new players and by just working harder.''
Sampson said McGhee was handcuffed early by the many new players on the roster. Once they became more comfortable with the offense and got McGhee the ball in the right spots, his game took off.
He is averaging 15.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, with 13 double-doubles. He can bang inside but also has the touch to score from 3-point range, making him a matchup problem for opponents.
McGhee has been especially strong since late January. During one stretch, he had double-doubles in seven out of nine games.
``I can't believe the improvement in a year,'' Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy said after McGhee had 26 points and 10 rebounds against his team. ``This guy didn't play real hard last year. He really didn't seem to take pride in his game defensively. But his game isn't dictated by his offense anymore.
``He's a pro, is what he is.''
McGhee started his college career at Cincinnati but left after one season. He went to a junior college before signing with Oklahoma.
``I always thought Oklahoma was going to be a great opportunity for me to show everybody that I was a high-level Division I player,'' McGhee said. ``Things are working out just as planned.''
His up-and-down performances were frustrating last year. Late in Oklahoma's NCAA first-round loss to Indiana State, Sampson took McGhee out in defensive situations because he was a liability.
``Last year, Aaron couldn't battle through fatigue or play through being tired,'' Sampson said. ``He handles adversity better now.''
This year, Sampson wanted McGhee to get tougher and improve his rebounding, and that has happened. The powerful McGhee says he is in the best shape of his life.
``He always had the talent, but Aaron's maturity and work ethic, those areas he had to improve,'' Sampson said. ``I wanted him to play like he was the baddest dude in the gym.''
Mission accomplished, although McGhee said work remains.
``It's very gratifying, after what happened last year,'' he said after scoring 25 points Sunday in a second-round victory over Xavier. ``We're really happy to be in the Sweet 16, but our goals are set higher than the Sweet 16. We want to be one of the four teams in Atlanta.''