Freshman Whitney Hand is doing all she can to bring Oklahoma that national title that Courtney Paris guaranteed.
Hand set new career-highs with 22 points and eight rebounds, and the top-seeded Sooners rolled to a 70-59 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday night to reach the regional finals of the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history.
Oklahoma (31-5) put the game away with a 20-2 second-half surge that included a wild, right-handed scoop shot by Hand that bounded its way into the basket. The Sooners were hardly bothered by foul trouble that kept Paris off the court much of the game, getting double-digit scoring from all five starters.
Shavonte Zellous scored 18 points on 7-for-20 shooting to lead Pitt, which lost in the round of 16 for the second straight year.
Oklahoma, which made its only other regional final appearance in 2002 on its way to the national championship game, advances to face sixth-seeded Purdue (25-10) on Tuesday night.
Paris, the Sooners’ All-America center, made waves on her senior night earlier this month when she promised that Oklahoma would win its first national title or she’d pay back her scholarship money.
So far, it has been Hand—who missed the last four games of the regular season with a broken left index finger—that’s been Oklahoma’s go-to girl in the NCAA tournament.
She hit three 3-pointers and scored 15 points in the second round against Georgia Tech to shake the rust off after three miserable games in which she went a combined 2-for-22 and got shut out twice. As it turned out, that was just a preview of what was to come.
She hit four 3-pointers and scored 17 of the Sooners’ first 32 points as Oklahoma shrugged off Paris’ early foul trouble. After Paris went to the bench with her second foul, the Sooners outscored Pitt 15-7 over the next 3 1/2 minutes and stretched their lead to 39-25 on Nyeshia Stevenson’s 3-pointer with 3:03 left before halftime.
Then, after Paris went to the bench with her fourth foul early in the second half, Hand came through with her circus shot in the lane. Hand gave an open-mouthed grin and got a few pats on her backside from her teammates before stepping to the line to complete her three-point play and make it 60-37 with 13:18 remaining.
The lead grew to 27 on Jasmine Hartman’s free throw shortly thereafter, and Pitt only made a dent in the lead by closing the game on a 12-0 run.
Ashley Paris, Courtney’s twin sister, had 12 points and 12 rebounds for Oklahoma while her sister narrowly missed out on her 127th career double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds.
Danielle Robinson and Nyeshia Stevenson, making her third straight start in place of the injured Amanda Thompson, scored 10 apiece.
Thompson, who played only 3 minutes total in the first two rounds because of an injured left foot, logged another 3 minutes after the game was out of hand in the second half.
Xenia Stewart had 10 points for Pitt, which went 23-for-74 from the field— including a 1-for-12 stretch to start the second half.
It got bad enough for the Panthers that even in the middle of their 10-2 run to got the lead below 20 points, freshman Kate Popovec fell into the lane before Zellous could attempt the front end of a one-and-one and Pitt lost possession.
The Panthers already had to overcome a raucous home crowd for the Sooners, who were playing less than a half-hour from their campus.
More than an hour before the game, the crowd was already showing its favoritism. When an image of Paris and two teammates walking down a hallway was flashed on the big screen in the second half of the Purdue-Rutgers game, fans applauded and yelled.
The Sooners then got one standing ovation when they first stepped into the arena, huddling and jumping up and down near the unoccupied Pitt bench, and another as they ran back off the court after warmups.
And there was plenty more to cheer for after that.