Eugeneia McPherson, Shenneika Smith key Red Storm to first Sweet 16

NORMAN, Okla. -- It takes more than close games and unforgiving circumstances to intimidate St. John's.

After battling their way up from the bottom of the Big East, the Red Storm are ready for anything.

Eugeneia McPherson scored 21 points, Shenneika Smith added 18 and St. John's advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA women's tournament for the first time in school history with a 74-70 win at Oklahoma on Tuesday night.

After getting knocked out each of the past two seasons in second-round road games, the Red Storm followed a first-round win on a buzzer-beater by eking out another close one on the Sooners' home court.

"I'm just happy that we came away with it. Oklahoma's a great, great program, a traditionally rich program, and for us to come into their building and be able to pull out a victory was just tremendous for us," coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "I'm excited.

"I'm excited to still be dancing."

The third-seeded Red Storm (24-9) came up with 21 points off 19 Oklahoma turnovers and were able to hold off a second-half charge to win in the second round for the first time in five tries.

After Barnes Arico said she didn't even recognize the defense her team played in a 69-67 opening win against Creighton, it was a little closer to business as usual for the Red Storm.

"That's just the way St. John's plays defense. We didn't see that in the Creighton game," McPherson said. "The refs let us play a little bit. Just forcing them into turnovers definitely helped us."

Whitney Hand led No. 6 seed Oklahoma (21-13) with 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. The Sooners had a chance to tie on Aaryn Ellenberg's 3-pointer from the top of the key with 37 seconds left, but the ball ticked off the right side of the rim and went out of bounds.

Oklahoma shot 48 percent and got the Red Storm into uncomfortable territory -- they entered the tournament 1-8 when allowing more than 60 points and 0-4 when giving up 70 -- but couldn't overcome all the mistakes.

St. John's made 41.5 percent of its shots but attempted 65 shots, to 48 for the Sooners.

"That's been our weakness all year," Hand said. "They had almost 20 more shots than we did. We shot it pretty well when we got shots up."

Nadirah McKenith, who hit the buzzer-beater in the first round against Creighton, had 13 points and seven assists. Da'Shena Stevens chipped in 11 points for St. John's.

The Red Storm will face No. 2 seed Duke on Saturday in Fresno, Calif., and Barnes Arico thinks her team is prepared if that one comes down to the final minute, too.

"They believe in each other and they believe down the stretch of the game, 'OK, all we need to do is get a stop. If things aren't going our way, we're going to get the ball back. We'll figure out a way.' And they've managed to do that against some of the toughest competition in the country this year.

"I think we've been in these kind of games and our kids are confident in these kind of games."

Oklahoma fell to 8-2 when playing at home in the NCAA tournament, having lost both times it was the lower seed, and failed to make the round of 16 for the first time in four years and the second time in seven years.

The Sooners matched their season low with eight turnovers in their 88-67 rout of Michigan in the first round but exceeded their 17.8 average against the Red Storm.

"We had some very careless turnovers, and even in light of that, we would come back and tie it and go up by two," coach Sherri Coale said. "I just felt like every time we took a lead, they had a quick and immediate, strong answer for it.

"After a while, we just didn't have enough to keep coming back with that."

Ellenberg, the Sooners' top scorer at 15.8 points per game, finished with only eight on 4-for-10 shooting. She missed all four of her 3-point tries and committed a team-high five turnovers.

St. John's surged ahead in the second half with a 10-0 run fueled by a pair of turnovers by Oklahoma freshman point guard DaShawn Harden, who was in the game because starter Morgan Hook picked up her fourth foul just more than 4 minutes after halftime.

Smith converted a fast-break layup off Harden's first turnover and ended up getting a second-chance basket after missing on the second. Stevens' jumper from the left side pushed the lead to 60-52 with 10:47 remaining.

"I think [Hook's foul trouble] was big," Coale said. "I rolled the dice a little leaving her out there but I just felt like we had to have her out there, and she's not typically a fouler."

The Sooners rallied back within 62-61 on Harden's 3-pointer from the top of the key with 7:12 to go. Oklahoma had its best chance after Amber Thompson missed the second of two free throws with 52 seconds left, but Ellenberg couldn't connect.