ALBANY, N.Y. - Hollis Price was back as Oklahoma's playmaker, but it was the return to scoring form of Ebi Ere that helped the Sooners outlast stubborn Butler in an East Regional semifinal last night, 65-54, at Pepsi Arena.
Ere, a senior who took himself out of the starting lineup in mid-February because of a shooting slump, burst for 25 points off the bench to ruin Butler's magical NCAA men's tournament run.
"I told the team that Ebi was a tremendous lesson in never giving up on yourself," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said after the Sooners advanced to the East final tomorrow against Syracuse, which beat Auburn, 79-78.
With a push from Ere, who was playing with a broken bone in his left wrist, the Sooners (27-6) looked like a team that could reach the Final Four for the second straight year. They got exquisite defense on the perimeter against Butler's three-point shooters. They pounded the Bulldogs inside for 19 offensive rebounds and 25 second-chance points. And they didn't have to rely on Price to carry the scoring load.
Price was hobbled by a groin injury through the first two games of the tournament and managed just eight points and four shots in cameo roles. But last night, the diminutive guard scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes.
Even if his shot was not entirely back - Price shot just 5-for-16 in scoring 12 points - he was able to help backcourt mate Quannas White contain Butler's vaunted shooting combination of Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller.
Archey went scoreless in the first half and finished with six points. Miller had seven, and was unable to get into his game. Together, Archey and Miller combined to shoot 3-for-12 overall and 1-for-6 from behind the three-point arc. Butler had advanced to play Oklahoma by hitting 14 three-pointers in a win over Louisville.
"They're a great three-point shooting team, and we tried to stop them from getting shots," White said.
The Sooners were just as effective inside, where they rolled up a 39-21 rebounding edge. Jabahri Brown pulled down 11 rebounds and Kevin Bookout had eight, but kept several more caroms alive on tip-outs.
"I thought our defense on the three-point line and our defense on the dribble was very good," Sampson said. "The one area we thought we could exploit Butler was off the boards. That was very important."
Even with all those things working, the Sooners still struggled to put away Butler (27-6). There were 10 lead changes in the first half, but it took a 12-3 Oklahoma spurt in the last four minutes to open a 32-23 lead.
That's because while the Sooners were holding down Butler's guards, they couldn't stop Joel Cornette much of the night. Cornette barreled to 21 points to keep Butler in the game. There was no defensive help inside.
"We couldn't help off their shooters because they've got shooters that can light it up," Price said.
The difference, ultimately, was Ere, who was hitting just 37.1 percent of his shots this season. He had scored more than 20 points six times this season, but not in the previous 14 games.
"What helped me out was knowing the other players can step up and play good," Ere said. "I knew if I could get back on track, we'd be better than we were then."
He got back on track with 12 points in the first half, lifting the Sooners in the process.
"I saw it in the first shot he took," Price said. "He penetrated and I could tell by how high he jumped. Every time he drove to the basket, he made something good happen for us."
Ere answered the call late in the game, too, after Butler got within 50-47 on a three-pointer by Mike Monserez. Ere scored Oklahoma's next five points on two drives into the lane - he was fouled on one - to open an eight-point lead.
Butler got as close as five points in the final three minutes, but Oklahoma hit six of eight free throws to advance.
"Ebi played like Ebi," White said, "and that's what we need."