COLUMBUS, Ohio —
A lot of teams grow apart over a long season.
Oklahoma’s drew closer.
Aaryn Ellenberg scored 27 points from the perimeter and Joanna McFarland handled things inside with 20 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Sooners past UCLA 85-72 on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament, earning them a trip back to their home state for the regional semifinals.
“These guys are so good together,” Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. “Tonight was so fitting because the way they are with one another off the floor was the way they played on the floor — that connectedness, for lack of a better word.”
Sixth-seeded Oklahoma (24-10) will face No. 2 seed Tennessee (26-7) — a 68-52 winner over Creighton — in Oklahoma City on Sunday.
Late in the game, Sooners boosters started chanting, “O-K-C! O-K-C!”
“It’s very, very exciting to be going home,” McFarland said. “We’re 40 minutes away, so hopefully we’ll have a very big fan base.”
Sharane Campbell added 19 points and Nicole Griffin had 10 for the Sooners, who never trailed after a 15-3 first-half spurt.
“Our guys are the kind that the more time they spend together, the better they get,” Coale said. “Some teams are just the opposite: Don’t lock ’em up in a hotel room for three or four days or everything will come unraveled. Not these guys.”
Atonye Nyingifa had 18 points, Markel Walker 14, Jasmine Dixon 13 and Alyssia Brewer and Thea Lemberger 10 apiece for third-seeded UCLA (26-8), which fell to 11-12 in NCAA tournament play.
As Bruins coach Cori Close finished her postgame remarks, she crossed paths with Oklahoma’s players and Coale.
“You guys did a heck of a job,” she said. “You were the better team.”
They weren’t the last time these two met.
The game was a rematch of each team’s second game this season, when UCLA came to Norman, Okla., and beat the Sooners 86-80 on Nov. 14. In that game, the Bruins had bludgeoned the Sooners with their inside game, outrebounding them 56-34 and turning 24 offensive boards into 23 second-chance points.
But on this night, the Sooners fought on relatively even terms inside and outscored the Bruins 33-6 from 3-point range, hitting 11 of 27 to UCLA’s 2 of 12. Three times in the last three minutes, it was McFarland who grabbed offensive rebounds to take time off the clock and add to the lead.
“We just played together and we played with a lot of emotion,” McFarland said. “We refused to lose. It was all or nothing. It was a team effort and it just felt amazing the whole night.”
Down 40-30 late in the first half, the Bruins closed with a 7-2 run and scored eight of the first 11 points in the second half to tie it briefly at 45.
But then Campbell hit a 3, McFarland made a free throw and Ellenberg tossed in a 3 from at least five feet behind the arc to put Oklahoma back up 52-45. The lead swelled to eight when Griffin hit a foul shot.
After the teams traded baskets over the next 21⁄2 minutes, Ellenberg raced down the floor in transition and hit a 3, pushing the lead back to 10 with 12:19 remaining.
“We felt like were chasing them from the start of the game,” Close said.
The advantage remained at or near 10 points until Ellenberg came off a pick out high and hit nothing but net on a 3 for a 74-60 lead with just 4:31 left. UCLA never got closer than nine again.
The Sooners are making their 16th trip to the NCAA tournament and their 14th in a row.
Ellenberg came in with a school-record 107 3-pointers this season, adding to her school-record 276. Amazingly, the 5-foot-7 junior with the slight build shoots 40 percent behind the arc.
“When I’m making shots, that confidence comes,” she said. “Why not exploit that area if they’re not guarding you very well?”
Down 18-15 midway through the opening half, the Sooners sprinted away.
They scored on five consecutive possessions — including three 3-pointers and another three-point play. McFarland was the key to the spurt with consecutive 3s. The first came from the right corner. and the next trip down the floor. she took a step toward the hoop from the extreme left corner with her defender falling down. She then stepped back and swished the shot.
Coale had an idea that her team wasn’t ready to quit playing.
“We began yesterday talking about having one more week together,” she said. “We didn’t talk about winning the game, we didn’t talk about going to the Sweet 16. We talked about having one more week together. You could see it just sort of bubbling within them. They were going to make that happen.”
COLUMBUS, Ohio —
A lot of teams grow apart over a long season.
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