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Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2003 6:41 PM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL RECAP
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(1) Oklahoma 71, (16) So Carolina St 54
SOUTH CAROLINA ST. BULLDOGS
South Carolina St. Bulldogs
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OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Oklahoma Sooners
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OKLAHOMA CITY (Ticker) -- Kelvin Sampson has plenty of reason to worry. But South Carolina State certainly wasn't one of his problems.

With star guard Hollis Price hobbling and starting forward Kevin Bookout ailing, top-seeded Oklahoma recovered from a cold start and cruised to a 71-54 victory over No. 16 South Carolina State in the first round of the East Region.

Returning four starters from last season's Final Four team, Oklahoma (25-6) is hoping for a run to the national championship in this NCAA Tournament under Sampson. But the Sooners will need a quick recovery from Price, who is taking anti-inflammatory medication for a partially torn left groin muscle suffered late in Sunday's Big 12 championship game win over Missouri.

The Big 12 Player of the Year, Price struggled to move laterally Thursday due to the injury and sat out the entire second half with a compress nestled near his upper thigh. He took just one shot, hitting a 3-pointer, and played just 11 minutes in the first half.

"He's hurting," Sampson said. "He had trouble playing defense and accelerating. It's going side-to-side that hurts him the most."

"I'm feeling better, although I wasn't as quick as usual," said Price, who averaged 19.5 points this season. "The team did a good job in giving me rest, me and Kevin rest."

Bookout, a 6-8 freshman and the team's leading rebounder, has strep throat and also did not play in the second half after going scoreless with one rebound in nine minutes in the first half.

Price's injury and Bookout's illness will be a major source of concern when Oklahoma meets eighth-seeded California in the second round on Saturday. But it was not an issue on Thursday against overmatched South Carolina State (20-11), which shot just 18 percent (4-of-22) in the first half.

Moved into the starting lineup late in the season when Ebi Ere was benched, freshman guard De'Angelo Alexander scored a season-high 16 points, including four 3-pointers, for the Sooners.

"De'Angelo stepped up today," Sampson said. "He's a great athlete and he's got great range on his jumper."

Sophomore guard Blake Johnston had a career-high 15 points off the bench, converting all three of his shots from beyond the arc.

But Ere, who broke a bone in his left wrist in a March 11 game, struggled mightily, making just 2-of-14 shots, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range.

Oklahoma missed its first eight shots before Alexander converted a 3-pointer and started 2-of-13 from the field. But the Bulldogs failed to take advantage, holding just a 7-4 lead with 12:56 left.

A three-point play by Jabahri Brown, who finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, gave Oklahoma its first lead at 9-7 with 11:18 remaining and 3-pointers by Alexander and Price increased the advantage to 15-9.

But after Demeco Heath hit a shot from beyond the arc with 9:29 left, South Carolina State went more than 5 1/2 minutes without a point and scored just four the rest of the half.

Oklahoma closed the half with a 20-4 run which included two free throws, a 3-pointer and a layup by Johnston.

"We try to make our offense come from our defense," said Johnston, who averaged just 2.3 points this season. "Coach preaches that and defense is where it starts for us."

Ere opened the second half with a dunk to increase the Sooners' advantage to 37-16.

A 3-pointer by Alexander gave Oklahoma its biggest lead at 57-26 with 12:22 left.

Dustin Braddick led South Carolina State, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champion, with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

The Bulldogs drew some attention due to the presence of Moses Malone Jr., the son of the NBA Hall-of-Famer. An athletic 6-5 instead of a 6-10 force inside like his dad, Malone Jr. finished with 13 points, three below his season average, on 5-of-10 shooting.

This marks the fifth time South Carolina State has appeared in the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round under 16th-year coach Cy Alexander. Previously falling to Duke (1989), Kansas (1996), Kentucky (1998) and Stanford (2000), the Bulldogs have dropped the five games by an average margin of 22 points.


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