Sunday, March 25, 2007

Half Way to the Final Four [J. Mark English]

Ohio State advances to the Final Four, as do the UCLA Bruins. Both of these teams I had going in my brackets. I'm sure I was hardly alone in making these picks however.

Ohio State played a solid game against Memphis. Both teams had gaudy winning streak on the line. Ohio State had won 20 games in a row, and Memphis had won 25. Ohio State prevailed 92-76, although the game was a lot closer then the score would indicate. What really helped push Ohio State over the edge was their precision at the free throw line as the game was coming down to its closing minutes. Heres a quick recap of the game from the NCAA website:

Ohio State coach Thad Matta looked down the bench and locked eyes with Greg Oden.

The big man, sitting out with three fouls, nodded.

"Let's go," Matta told him, adding his usual advice in such situations: "Play real hard and don't foul anybody."

Oden followed orders perfectly, dominating like only a 7-footer can over the decisive stretch in the second half to carry the top-seeded Buckeyes past Memphis 92-76 and into the Final Four.

Oden's numbers in Saturday's South Regional championship weren't huge: 17 points, nine rebounds.

His presence was.

While Oden was on the bench with his third foul, Ohio State (34-3) went from five points up to five points down. Then the fabulous freshman went back in and everything changed again.

Controlling the paint on offense and defense, he triggered a 20-8 surge that put the Buckeyes back in charge. The second-seeded Tigers (33-4) tried hanging in by fouling, but Ohio State foiled that plan by making 20 straight free throws. The Buckeyes' 21st straight win takes them to Atlanta next weekend for a national semifinal matchup with the winner of Sunday's North Carolina-Georgetown game.

In only 30 college games, Oden has taken over plenty of them. None, however, was as impressive as this one, mainly because it was so important.

As for UCLA, they knocked out of the tournament the first number one seed. The Bruins return to a very familiar place, the Final Four. The game seemed a bit unfair to Kansas who were playing essentially a road team in a sold out arena in San Jose. Most of the fans there were partisan towards the Bruins. The Bruins made some very impressive shots with time winding down on the shot clock. Here is a recap again from the NCAA:

With good-natured shoves and claps, the UCLA Bruins formed a circle around Arron Afflalo -- the rightful center of attention.

In an exceptional second half that should help erase memories of his past mediocrity in big games, Afflalo scored 15 of his 24 points and the Bruins held off the top-seeded Jayhawks for a 68-55 victory in the West Regional final Saturday night.

Afflalo, hiding behind the souvenir hat and T-shirt from the biggest game of his career, tried to be just one of the guys -- even though he was the main reason UCLA is heading back to the Final Four for a second consecutive season.

"I don't really think about it during the game, but when you're making shots, you're gaining confidence," said Afflalo, who made all six of his shots after halftime. "My teammates showed a lot of confidence in me. If I'm fortunate enough to make shots -- just keep shooting, keep playing. That has to be a scorer's mentality."

Darren Collison added 14 points and four big free throws in the final seconds while leading the Bruins' stellar defensive effort -- but whenever the Bruins faced offensive trouble, Afflalo seemed to solve it, hitting a big shot or drawing the defense to set up a teammate.

Second-seeded UCLA (30-5) made its halftime lead stand up in an appropriately tense meeting between two schools with rich traditions and a combined 29 Final Four appearances -- including an NCAA-record 17th for UCLA next week in Atlanta. The Bruins edged ahead of North Carolina, which has 16 going into Sunday's East Regional final against Georgetown.

The Bruins, who lost to Florida in last season's national title game, could be in for a rematch: They'll meet Sunday's winner of the Gators' regional final against Oregon.

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