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Oklahoma holds off late Gonzaga push to advance

Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis successfully battles for a loose ball. Photo by Ty Russell, Oklahoma Athletics.

SEATTLE — For a few moments on Saturday night, you may have thought Gonzaga earned a top-four seed and home-court advantage, instead of playing 300-or so miles away in their first-round match up with Oklahoma.

The Seattle crowd was at its loudest after a three-pointer by Makenlee Williams brought the Bulldogs within five with just over six minutes to play, after trailing by as many as 15 in the third quarter.

A jumper from Jill Barta again brought Gonzaga within five, with 5:25 to go.

The margin wouldn’t get down to one possession.

Gonzaga scored just five points the rest of the game, as the Sooners advanced to play the winner of Washington/Montana State with a 75-62 victory at Alaska Airlines Arena. Oklahoma will play Washington on Monday night with a Sweet 16 bid on the line.

Oklahoma center Vionise Pierre-Louis set a career-high with eight blocks, and flirted with a triple-double with eight rebounds and 17 points, while guard Peyton Little had a game-high 18 points for the Sooners. Guard Laura Stockton had 13 points to lead the Bulldogs, followed by Barta’s 13, and senior Elle Tinkle’s 11.

The Sooners (23-9) came out firing from distance in the first quarter, making 6-of-their-first-7 attempts from 3-point range and at one-point had made seven consecutive baskets. They held a 13-point advantage after 10 minutes.

“After being off for two weeks, and the way we started in the first quarter — we shot it about as good as we could shoot,” Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale said.

During that hot start, the Sooners took full advantage of Gonzaga’s man defense. That wasn’t lost on Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier.

“They were driving and kicking, driving and kicking, and we weren’t able to keep them out of the middle to kick it up to their shooters,” she said.

That left Oklahoma with plenty of open looks.

“I was frustrated,” Stockton said, “because I feel like we were giving them those opportunities.”

Both teams went cold to start the second, with the Zags making just three field goals in the first five minutes, while Oklahoma scored just four points in the quarter’s first eight minutes.

That allowed Gonzaga to pull within seven with just over three minutes to go in the half, but 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions from guards Maddie Manning and Derica Wyatt got the lead back to 13 at the break.

Oklahoma got the lead to 15 in the opening moments of the third, but the Bulldogs shaved the deficit to single digits heading into the fourth.

On multiple occasions, Gonzaga pulled within two possessions, but get no closer in the game’s final minutes. Coale said she liked how her team “stayed in the possession we were in,” not just over the final quarter, but throughout the night.

For Pierre-Louis, the dwindling lead didn’t change how the team played.

“We didn’t let it scare us or speed us up at all,” she said. “We had a nice pace throughout the first half and when they started to run, it was because we had a lack of communication on our transition defense. But we didn’t let that frazzle us, and we just stuck with each other, and played for each other, then pulled it out.”

On the Gonzaga side, the frenetic pace of erasing the first quarter deficit may have shown up down the stretch.

“We had a lot of players with red faces on the bench,” Tinkle said. “It was tough, we were working hard to cut back into the lead. But if we have a better start, then we don’t necessarily have to do that, so we made it a lot more difficult on ourselves.”

Of all the moments at the finish, Coale said Gioya Carter’s three-point play with just over six minutes to play stands out.

“We had a lot of great plays, but that one stuck with me because we needed a basket so desperately,” Coale said.

Oklahoma outscored the Bulldogs 13-5 to the finish after Barta’s jumper pulled Gonzaga within five.

The Sooners will now play Washington on Monday at Alaska Airlines Arena, after the Huskies  dispatched Montana State 91-63 to advance.

Dribbles:

Oklahoma won the only other matchup between the two programs, a 72-68 victory in a preseason WNIT game in 2014 … The Bulldogs shot just 3-of-18 from 3-point range … Gonzaga returns three starters and 10 letter-winners next season … Oklahoma has now made the round of 32 three straight seasons … 12 of Peyton Little‘s 18 points came in the first quarter … The Sooners are now 16-3 all-time in NCAA opening round games …

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