This day in OU Hoops History: Razing Arizona Sends Sooners to Title Game

John. E. Hoover

Oklahoma’s 2020 college basketball season came to an unceremonious and premature end when the NCAA declared this year’s tournament would not be played due to measures intended to stop the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Sooners just might have assembled the kind of team — a Big Three scoring triumvirate and a collection of young, athletic talent — that could have possibly made a good postseason run.

This team’s resume will always be incomplete.

Instead of using three weeks this spring to witness OU basketball history, SI Sooners will relive it. From now until April 4 — the date that was supposed to be this year’s Final Four semifinals — we’ll look back on Oklahoma’s most memorable NCAA Tournament games from that date in history.

April 2, 1988

(1) Oklahoma 86, (1) Arizona 78

Back in the Final Four for the first time 41 years, and back in Kansas City’s historic Kemper Arena where three weeks earlier the Sooners had won the Big Eight Conference title, top-seeded OU almost seemed a team of destiny.

But No. 1 seed Arizona, armed with an All-American forward and two future Hall of Fame coaches (one at point guard), was up for the challenge.

The Wildcats came into the Final Four with a 35-2 record, led the nation in field goal percentage and 3-point shooting and were coming off a 70-52 annihilation of No. 2 North Carolina in the regional final.

OU’s plan was the same as it always was: run and gun and have fun — and win. The Sooners came in with a 34-3 record, and had no intention of slowing down now.

But after a slow start, coach Billy Tubbs called timeout and switched to a zone defense. That produced a 14-4 run, and the game, played before 16,392 fans, was afoot.

Oklahoma led by 12 at halftime, but Arizona quickly cut it to 51-48 early in the second half. OU extended it to back to 58-50, but the Wildcats cut it to four. When Harvey Grant and Mookie Blaylock stretched it back to eight, frustration began to set in for Arizona.

“Just when I thought we’d catch them,” said ‘Cats coach Lute Olson, “they’d pull away again.”

Stacey King, however, was hit with his fourth foul with 9:16 to play and the Sooners having rebuilt a nine-point lead. King averaged 28.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in the first four games of the tournament, so Arizona suddenly seemed to have life.

Instead of wilting with OU’s All-American on the sideline, backup Andre Wiley blossomed with 11 points and four rebounds down the stretch. Tubbs decided Wiley’s heroics were enough and kept King on the bench for the rest of the game.

Things might have been different if sharpshooting guard Steve Kerr had found his shot for the Wildcats. Instead Kerr, who led the nation by shooting 59.9 percent from 3-point range, shot a miserable 2-of-12 from beyond the arc.

“That was a lot of potential points right there,” Kerr said. “That kind of (up-tempo) game takes it out of your legs.”

OU’s stretch defense limited Arizona to just 26 percent shooting and forced 15 Wildcat turnovers.

All-American Sean Elliott carried even more of Arizona’s scoring load, pouring in 31 points with 11 rebounds against the Sooners. And it wasn’t just Elliott. Without any consistent perimeter shooting, the Wildcats got plenty of production inside as Anthony Cook had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Tom Tolbert had 11 and 13.

Oklahoma wasn’t any better from outside, hitting just 4-of-14 from 3-point range. But the Sooners’ strength on this night was also in the paint, where King produced 21 points and six rebounds and Harvey Grant had 21 and 10. Ricky Grace scored 13 with 8 assists and Mookie Blaylock scored 7 with 6 assists. Dave Sieger also scored 10, but the unsung hero was Wiley.

“I felt pretty good out there, pretty relaxed,” Wiley said. “Coach Tubbs told me to hit the boards and play good defense, so that's what I did.”

The victory sent OU to the national title game for the first time since 1947 (when the Sooners lost to Holy Cross), and it set up a rematch with Big Eight rival Kansas, an overachieving 6-seed that most considered a one-man team. The Jayhawks took down 2-seed Duke 66-59 in the other national semifinal, but had lost both regular season meetings to the Sooners, both by 8 points.

Fate, it seemed, was smiling on Oklahoma.

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