Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16, 1989: One point

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Oklahoma Sooners were the defending national runners-up, a team thirsty to take that one final step. After a dominating regular season the year before, they had lost to unranked Kansas in the national championship game. Instead of folding, however, the Sooners simply bounced back the next year, winning another Big 8 championship and earning another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The East Tennessee State Buccaneers were making just the second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, the first since 1968, which was before many of its players were born. They could have been forgiven if they had slipped into "happy to be here" mode and gotten run off the court by the powerful Sooners.

So of course, it was East Tennessee State that had a 17-point lead in the first half.

It was a surprising scoreline, to be sure, but what followed was not surprising. It has happened so many times in past NCAA tournaments; maybe the pressure of the moment starts to get to the underdog holding the lead, and they start to watch the clock rather than pay attention to the game; or maybe the favorite realizes that they actually have a game on their hands and starts taking this upstart seriously. Whatever the cause, Oklahoma started the comeback, started chipping away at the East Tennessee lead.

But it took them a while. Well past halftime, deep into the second half, Oklahoma still hadn't come all the way back. Finally, with 1:21 left in the game, Oklahoma guard Mookie Blaylock scored on a baseline drive to give the Sooners a 72-71 lead. Order had been restored for the moment, but East Tennessee still had a chance at the lead, but two Buccaneer misses gave the ball back to Oklahoma, and eventually Blaylock ended up with a one-and-one situation.

Hoping to give the Sooners a three-point lead, the soon-to-be NBA point guard instead missed the first free throw with six seconds left, giving the Buccaneers one more shot at a miracle. It had to be a miracle, as Oklahoma's tight inbounds defense prevented East Tennessee from getting anything better than a near-halfcourt heave by Alvin West. When Mike Bell got his finger on the shot, the ball fell harmlessly away, and Oklahoma had averted the largest kind of upset.

Fresh off their great escape, the Sooners hoped to regroup for another Final Four run. Instead, their season ended after only one more victory, as they fell to Virginia in the Sweet 16.

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