Southeast gets A+ for effort in loss

Sunday, March 18, 2007
Southeast Missouri State's Missy Whitney went after a loose ball after attempting to recover her own rebound between Oklahoma's Ashley Paris, left, and Leah Rush in the second half at the NCAA Regional Tournament on Saturday in Austin, Tex. (Fred Lynch)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Oklahoma got its anticipated victory Saturday.

But not before the Sooners had to fend off a spirited upset bid from heavy underdog Southeast Missouri State.

The Redhawks, a No. 14 regional seed, trailed third-seeded OU by just three points at halftime after leading for most of the period.

Southeast stayed within striking distance for much of the second half as well, but the Sooners finally took control down the stretch to win the first-round NCAA tournament game 74-60.

OU, ranked ninth nationally, will carry a 27-4 record and a nine-game winning streak into Monday's second-round game against sixth-seeded Marquette.

The nation's top rebounders, Southeast Missouri State's Lachelle Lyles, left, and Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, stood ready for the ball in the second half at the NCAA Regional Tournament on Saturday in Austin, Tex. (Fred Lynch)

Southeast, which had its own nine-game winning streak snapped, finished the season 24-8. The Redhawks recorded the most victories since the program moved up to Division I in 1991-92.

"I couldn't be any prouder of my team," Southeast coach John Ishee said. "I don't think there were any losers here today."

In Southeast's first NCAA Division I tournament appearance last season, the Redhawks did not seriously challenge Stanford. They never led, trailed by 13 points at halftime and lost 72-45.

Ishee, who was not on the staff a year ago, knew the Redhawks would have to give quite a performance in order to make a better showing this time around.

He got his wish. The Redhawks battled OU on equal terms for most of the contest.

"We gave great effort, and we played about as well as we could play for 40 minutes," Ishee said. "We just fell short. Oklahoma was just a little bit better.

"Our expectations were to play championship level basketball and to give ourselves a chance to win. I think we did that."

While disappointed with the loss, several Redhawks said they took some solace in the fact they made the Sooners sweat virtually to the wire.

"I'm proud for the whole team for giving the effort they did," sophomore guard Sonya Daugherty said. "We were the underdogs. We didn't have anything to lose."

Said junior forward Missy Whitney: "I think we surprised a lot of people."

But not OU coach Sherri Coale, who said the day before the game she expected a tough battle from the Redhawks. Coale further praised Southeast following the contest.

"I would not have expected for that game to go any different than it went," Coale said. "I have to give SEMO a lot of credit. They are a very good basketball team.

"They're well-coached and they did everything they needed to do. At the end, we were just a little bit better."

The Sooners never really could put Southeast away until the very end -- they scored the game's final seven points -- despite shooting 56.9 percent from the field. The Sooners made 10 of 17 3-pointers and committed only 10 turnovers.

"This was a dogfight until the bitter end," Coale said. "I think that's a reflection of how well SEMO played."

About the only thing the Redhawks did not do well was shoot -- they hit 33.9 percent from the field and made just seven of 21 3-pointers -- which Ishee said OU's size and talent had plenty to do with.

"Size and speed changes and alters shots," said Ishee, whose squad turned the ball over just six times. "To Oklahoma's credit, it was part of the reasoning behind our 34 percent."

Daugherty, the most valuable player of the recent Ohio Valley Conference tournament, just missed a career high for scoring, as she had 25 points. She pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds.

"Sonya had a great game," Ishee said.

Daugherty had 19 first-half points as she hit six of nine shots, including three of four from 3-point range. She made just two of nine second-half shots and missed all three of her 3-point attempts.

"Daugherty was on fire the first half," Coale said.

Whitney scored 14 points but hit just four of 16 shots.

Senior center Lachelle Lyles, the nation's leading rebounder, matched Daugherty with 10 boards. She also had three steals.

Junior guard Ashley Lovelady had eight points and six assists, while sophomore guard Tarina Nixon scored eight points and had four assists. Courtney Paris, OU's 6-foot-4 All-American sophomore center who averages 23.6 points and 16.2 rebounds per game, which ranks seond nationally behind Lyles' 17.2 average, was largely controlled by Southeast.

Paris extended her NCAA record streak of double-doubles to 59 as she had 13 points and 11 rebounds, but that point total marks her second-lowest of the season. She scored just three first-half points while taking only two shots.

Ishee said the plan was to try and make life miserable for Paris, who was mainly guarded by Lyles, with plenty of help from teammates.

He wanted to force the Sooners to hit outside shots, and OU did that.

Freshman point guard Jenna Plumley led the Sooners with 20 points, nailing six of 10 3-pointers. She hit four of five treys in the first half. She also had seven assists.

Plumley entered the game averaging just 4.8 points, but she is averaging more than 10 points per contest since being inserted into the starting lineup nine games ago.

Senior forward Leah Rush made three of five 3-pointers and added 19 points. She was averaging just 9.5 points per game, but as a sophomore led the Sooners with a 15.5 average before taking a back seat offensively behind Paris the past two years.

"It's pick your poison," Ishee said. "I'm going to pick mine from 20 feet and not one foot.

"Rush is a big-time player and Plumley is obviously very good. They're a total team. They're not a one-player team."

Said the Plumley: "I don't think they meant to leave me that wide open. It was just they were so focused on Courtney."

Southeast put up the game's first basket on a 3-pointer, fell behind 6-3 and then used a 10-0 run to lead 13-6. The Redhawks stayed ahead for much of the opening half.

The Redhawks built three eight-point leads. OU surged ahead 34-27 late, but Southeast scored seven straight points before the Sooners carried a 37-34 advantage into the locker room on Rush's 3-pointer with 1:04 remaining.

"I thought for much of the first half we were the better team," Ishee said.

OU shot 59.3 percent in the second half compared to 28.6 percent for Southeast -- but still could not totally put the Redhawks away.

The Sooners, who never allowed Southeast to catch them in the final period, three times opened up 10-point leads, including 60-50 with under 7 minutes left.

Southeast answered every OU charge and was within 64-58 after Whitney's 3-pointer with 4:32 to play.

The Redhawks were hanging around at 67-60 before the Sooners finally delivered the knockout blow with a game-ending 7-0 run over the final 3 minutes.

"They played us tough. I have a lot of respect for them," Paris said.

The defeat still hurt, but the way the Redhawks lost comforted Ishee just a bit.

"A lot of games are not as close as the score indicates and a lot of games are closer than the score indicates," Ishee said. "This was the latter.

"Like I said, I am very proud of them. I really couldn't have asked for a better effort."

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