Oklahoma 84, Niagara 64

Thursday, March 17th 2005, 10:08 am
By: News On 6

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ Oklahoma overcame its own uninspired play and the inspirational support Niagara got from a former star and the coach's cancer-stricken mother to beat the Purple Eagles in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Drew Lavender led six Sooners in double figures with 17 points in third-seeded Oklahoma's 84-64 victory Thursday in an Austin Regional game at Arizona's McKale Center.

The Sooners (25-7), who didn't make the tourney last year, struggled with 46 percent field-goal shooting, but were helped out by solid defense that harassed the Eagles into 16 turnovers.

Juan Mendez led the 14th-seeded Eagles (20-10) with 22 points and 15 rebounds. But he missed his first 11 shots in the second half and finally made a basket with just over a minute left in his final college game. David Brooks added 16 points.

Mendez and Brooks left the game with 1:09 to play and shared a group hug with coach Joe Mihalich as Niagara fans chanted, ``Thank you, seniors.''

After trailing by three at halftime, the Eagles got within one on a basket by Alvin Cruz. But then they went cold, going nearly 12 minutes without a field goal as Oklahoma built a 19-point lead.

All of Niagara's current players were a decade or more from being born when the Eagles last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1970. Back then, future NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy helped the Eagles to a 1-2 record under the tournament's old format.

Murphy sat in Niagara's fan section, looking resplendent in a purple pinstriped suit and gray snakeskin shoes. Purple-clad Niagara students chanted his name during a timeout and a smiling Murphy pointed back at them.

Dolores Mihalich, the 80-year-old coach's mother, sat near Murphy with her hands clasped and a purple bandanna covering her head. She is battling colon cancer, which has spread to her liver.

Her son had promised that one day she would see him coach in a tournament game. Once the Eagles qualified, she carefully scheduled her biweekly chemotherapy treatments so she would be strong enough to travel across the country.

The 3,548-student school in upstate New York qualified as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champions.

But Oklahoma proved too big and too powerful inside and even its own plodding performance was more than enough to overcome Niagara. Taj Gray added 13 points and 13 rebounds; David Godbold, Kevin Bookout and Lawrence McKenzie added 12 points each. Bookout grabbed 10 rebounds and the Sooners held a 48-37 edge on the boards.

Tied at 16-all, the Sooners used a 19-6 run to take their largest lead of the first half at 35-22. Most of their baskets came inside, with seven different players scoring, before Godbold capped the spurt with a 3-pointer.

The Eagles responded by outscoring Oklahoma 12-2 to end the half trailing 37-34. Mendez had seven points and Lorenzo Miles five.