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Sooners overcome slow start, hold off FGCU

Mar. 23—Oklahoma's Skylar Vann missed one of two free throws with a chance to go up two possessions over Florida Gulf Coast in the closing seconds.

Still, as she entered the huddle during the ensuing timeout, she didn't appear rattled. The Sooners needed to come up with one more stop to hold off the upset-minded Eagles in the First Round of the NCAA tournament.

On the next possession Vann defended a 3-point attempt by Dolly Cairns. OU's Nevaeh Tot landed on her back as she reeled in the rebound and the Eagles were able to force a jump ball to get one more shot to tie the game.

Uju Ezeudu's last-second prayer missed and the Sooners advanced to the second round with a 73-70 win for the third straight year.

"We want to start a little bit better going forward," OU's Payton Verhulst said, "but I think finishing the games is really important in March."

Fifth-seeded Oklahoma will play No. 4-seed Indiana on Monday with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

The Sooners fell behind early and wouldn't get their first make from the field until three minutes of game time had passed. The Eagles led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, but the Sooners started to find their groove offensively in the final minutes.

The Sooners trailed by just two points by halftime and took their first lead of the game with 2:47 left in the third quarter.

"I thought the second quarter we settled in a little bit more defensively and just steadied up a little bit," OU head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "I feel like we were running out, we were doing all these things, where we were playing hard, but we weren't necessarily just steady and able to read."

They knocked down 50% of their shots in the second half and Vann led the way with 14 points on 5-11 shooting to pull off the comeback win.

Vann finished with a game-high 24 points with two makes from behind the arc.

Oklahoma has been in 12 games decided by single digits this season, while the Eagles had not played in a game that was decided by single digits. The game was tied going into the fourth quarter and the Sooners played like the more experienced team down the stretch.

Trailing by three with just over six minutes left, Lexi Keys turned an FGCU turnover into a layup on the other end. Over the next three minutes, the Sooners would go on a 9-0 run to take a six-point lead.

The Sooners improved to 8-2 on the year in games decided by eight points or fewer. It was their third double-digit comeback win of the season and 15th under Baranczyk.

"I don't think we got down on ourselves," Williams said. "I think it really set a fire under us. It's March. Nobody wants to go home."

Keys had two steals and Verhulst added three more. Verhulst scored seven of her 11 points in the fourth quarter, going 3-5 from the field with a a 3-pointer in the final period.

Freshman Sahara Williams helped get the Sooners back on track in the second quarter with nine of the team's 18 points. Williams went to the line six times in the second quarter with five makes.

She finished second on the team with 14 points on 3-4 shooting, while going 8-10 from the charity stripe with five rebounds.

FGCU's high-flying offense knocked down 11 3-pointers, but only had 14 makes from inside the arc. The Sooners forced 15 turnovers and assisted on 19 of their 25 made baskets.

The Eagles had eight steals and scored 24 points off of 13 Oklahoma turnovers with 15 offensive boards.

The Sooners have not lost a First Round game under Baranczyk (3-0), but have not won a Round of 32 game either (0-3). With a win on Monday, the program would advance to its first Sweet 16 since 2013.

Tarik Masri is the sports editor for The Transcript covering OU athletics and area sports. You can reach him by emailing tarik@normantranscript.com