- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was nearly a botched play that turned into one of the greatest ones in Oklahoma State’s basketball history.

Cowboys point guard John Lucas watched helplessly as Joey Graham lost control of the ball before recovering near the top of the key. At the time, Saint Joseph’s led by one with the clock ticking under 10 seconds. Graham even drew Lucas’ defender before finding his teammate open on the left wing.

Lucas made a picture-perfect 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds left that will live forever in Cowboys folklore. Oklahoma State left Continental Airlines Arena with a thrilling 64-62 victory to earn the East Rutherford regional championship and a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio.

“When [Graham] fumbled the ball, my man [Tyrone Barley] kind of went after it,” said Lucas, the son of Maryland’s former All-American with the same name. “And I got an opening. I just got my elbow underneath and legs underneath. … That was the biggest shot I hit in my life.”

However, the Cowboys couldn’t cut down the nets in celebration of their first Final Four since 1995 until Saint Joseph’s All-American Jameer Nelson missed a contested jumper at the buzzer.

Oklahoma State, 31-3 and winner of 10 straight, will be aiming for its first national title since winning back-to-back crowns in 1945 and 1946. The Cowboys will meet the Atlanta regional champion — Xavier or Duke — in a Final Four semifinal Saturday.

Nelson fell to the floor in despair after the final miss of his career. Saint Joe’s (30-2), which recorded the first undefeated regular season since UNLV in 1990-91, was trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1961.

“It’s a magical team,” said Nelson, who made six of 18 shots and finished with 17 points. “This season was great for me, but it was more so being around this group of guys.”

Lucas ran toward the stands and embraced his father once the game ended. The younger Lucas transferred from Baylor last summer in the wake of that program’s scandal.

“We were just hugging and rejoicing. [My dad] just said, ‘Way to battle back,’” said Lucas, the tournament’s MVP. “I let [my team] down in the first half and said I was going to do whatever it takes in the second half to get it going.”

Lucas pushed the pace after intermission and the Cowboys, who had missed all eight of their 3-pointers in the first half, began making shots. Oklahoma State quickly erased a six-point deficit with a 14-2 run immediately after the break. Lucas delivered a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Cowboys a 35-33 lead.

“I thought the speed at which they attacked, and he attacked in particular in the second half, was the difference for him,” said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, whose Hawks were the region’s top seed. “He liked that kind of game.”

Saint Joseph’s was betrayed by its trademark 3-pointers. The Hawks made only eight of 26 (30.8 percent) and were manhandled 43-24 on the boards.

Trailing by six, the Hawks rallied to tie at 43-43 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Nelson and Delonte West (20 points). Oklahoma State built its lead to four after a 3-point play by Graham (17 points, 11 rebounds), who was part of the Cowboys’ frontline along with Ivan McFarlin (12 rebounds).

Saint Joe’s answered with five straight and regained the lead on Nelson’s pull-up 3-pointer, but the Cowboys regained the lead on Lucas’ 3-pointer from the right corner and took a 55-50 advantage on McFarlin’s 3-point play after Lucas set up the fastbreak layup with an outlet pass from the backcourt.

The captivating conclusion was set up after Pat Carroll’s 3-pointer gave Saint Joe’s its final lead at 62-61 with 28 seconds left. Graham (17 points) had tied the game at 59-59 on a layup with 3:09 left.

“John hit a big-time shot for us,” said Graham, who watched in agony until Nelson’s last hope missed badly. “I was just hoping and praying it would not go in.”

Said Carroll: “[Nelson] is the best player in America. He’s been doing those kinds of things the entire season.”

Saint Joseph’s led 33-27 at the half despite missing 12 of 15 3-pointers. The Hawks made up for that with a full-court pressing defense that forced 10 turnovers and created 16 3-pointers. Oklahoma State had zero points off turnovers and couldn’t take advantage of its 23-11 rebounding advantage with close-in shots and putbacks.

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