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Sooners withstand Wildcats' fast start, recover to return to Final Four

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Oklahoma withstood early adversity, composed itself and took control with balance, hustle and its trademark toughness.

In a game that mirrored their season, the resilient Sooners pulled through.

Now they're going back to the Final Four.

Nyeshia Stevenson scored 31 points, one shy of her career high, and Oklahoma blew past fourth-seeded Kentucky 88-68 on Tuesday night to earn its second straight trip to the Final Four.

Amanda Thompson added 17 points and 14 rebounds for the third-seeded Sooners (27-10), who'll face Stanford on Sunday in San Antonio.

The Wildcats stormed out to a 17-4 lead, only to watch as the Sooners rallied to go ahead 43-39 by halftime. Oklahoma opened the second half on a 15-5 run, then scored 11 straight points to jump ahead 69-50 with 6:30 left.

"My kids, they just win. They just win," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "Grit, intestinal fortitude, never doubt. They just believe."

Victoria Dunlap had 31 points and 13 rebounds to lead Kentucky (28-8), which was seeking its first trip to the Final Four. The Wildcats stunned top-seeded Nebraska to reach their first regional final since 1982, but they couldn't complete the Big 12 sweep in Kansas City.

Kentucky certainly looked the part early. But after a brutal start, the second half belonged to the Sooners.

"I don't know what was wrong in the first four minutes. But we turned it around and we played Oklahoma basketball," Stevenson said.

That was in large part due to Stevenson, who finished one point shy of a career high.

She followed a 3 with a transition layup to give Oklahoma its first double-digit edge, 54-44. Robinson then hit a layup, and Thompson's open jumper put the Sooners ahead by 14.

Kentucky scored six quick points, but that would be about it for the Wildcats.

Oklahoma responded with a series of knockout blows, as Jasmine Hartman's steal and layup put Oklahoma back ahead 64-50 with 7:41 left. Stevenson then buried another 3 to give the Sooners an insurmountable a 19-point lead.

"She was fantastic," Coale said of Stevenson. "She's finally figured out that she's fast with the ball in her hand."

Kentucky's speed and quickness had Oklahoma on its heels early, though.

Freshman A'dia Mathies had a transition jumper, a steal and an assist in the books 30 seconds in, and Amber Smith's no-look dish to Mathies put the Wildcats ahead 8-0.

Six minutes passed before the Sooners hit a field goal, and by then, Kentucky's lead was already in double digits.

But Oklahoma soon found its comfort level, erasing a 13-point deficit in the blink of an eye. Danielle Robinson, who had 16 points and six assists, converted a 3-point play off a steal gave Oklahoma its first lead, 28-25, with 7:41 left in the first half, and she added a late layup to put the Sooners ahead by four at halftime.

Of Coale's three Final Four teams, these Sooners just might be the most remarkable.

Oklahoma lost the frontcourt duo of Courtney and Ashley Paris and were picked to finish fifth in the brutal Big 12. The loss of guard Whitney Hand to a knee injury early in the season cast further doubts over their national title hopes. But Oklahoma survived the nation's toughest schedule -- all 10 of its losses came against teams that made the NCAA tournament -- and was at its best in Kansas City.

The Sooners pulled off a mild upset of second-seeded Notre Dame on Sunday night, as Stevenson's 3 late in overtime helped give them a hard-fought 77-72 win. Oklahoma then blew the doors off the speedy Wildcats in the second half, outscoring them 45-29 in the second half and shooting an astounding 61.5 from the field for the game.

The Sooners will be joined by Baylor in San Antonio, marking the first-ever Final Four with two Big 12 teams.

"Throughout the season, we've had to fight," Stevenson said. "After every loss, we learned from it."

Tuesday's loss was a bitter end to the most successful season Kentucky's ever had. Picked to finish 11th in the SEC, the Wildcats set a school record for wins and put the program on the map nationally.

Few gave them a chance to knock off top-seeded Nebraska in the regional semis. But the Wildcats overwhelmed the Cornhuskers with their speed, quickness and pressure, making it apparent that their victory was no upset.

Oklahoma could run with Kentucky, though, and the Wildcats seemed to run out of gas once the Sooners dug themselves out of that early hole.

Kentucky shot just 23.1 percent in the second half, had just six assists against 14 turnovers and, after shooting lights out from beyond the arc in the first three NCAA tournament games, shot just 2 of 17 from 3-point range.

Smith and Mathies each had nine points for Kentucky. The Wildcats return four starters next season, including Dunlap and Mathies, and shouldn't have to worry about being picked 11th for a while.

"We laid a foundation now that Kentucky is something to mess with," Kentucky's Amani Franklin said. "We have been on a great run."