The Norman Transcript

March 21, 2014

Sooners flying home with high hopes for next season

Baylor was the turning point for up-down season

By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript

SPOKANE, Wa — By John Shinn

Transcript Sports Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. — For every Cinderella story born in the NCAA tournament, there’s another side. There are the teams left stunned because a season has ended abruptly.

Oklahoma was that team Thursday night at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena after the 80-75 overtime loss to North Dakota State.

Like many favorites that lose in the NCAA tournament, it was an ending the Sooners did not see coming.

“We’ve gotta play harder, man. Fight, guard people and just get after it, man,” OU guard Buddy Hield said. “We have to find a way to win in the postseason.”

The Sooners (23-10) now have seven months to ponder what caused this shift in the postseason from a squad that was focused and energetic at the start of games to the one that was neither Thursday in the NCAA tournament or last week in the Big 12 tournament.

Thursday night’s loss can be pinned on several plays in the final 40 seconds of regulation. OU had a four-point, but it dwindled because Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard both missed free throws that could’ve keep the advantage at two possessions. Buddy Hield, who was an uncharacteristic 1 for 9 from 3-point range, missed an open 3-pointer from the corner — his typical spot — with less than five seconds left in regulation. Woodard and Cousins both missed follows.

But the foundation to OU’s postseason collapses were erected much earlier.

The Sooners gave up a 9-0 run late in the first half that gave the Bison a 37-29 halftime lead. The momentum the Bison built of that 3-minute spurt never really went away.

The deficit was bigger in the 78-73 loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal. The ramification was identical.

“It’s disappointing,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “You always want to end the season on a positive note — this group especially. The three weeks prior to Baylor this group was probably playing clearly their best basketball of the year. Baylor outplayed for sure. Tonight was tough.”

Winning in the postseason always is arduous. There are a handful of teams that can overwhelm opponents on sheer talent alone. The Sooners are not one of those teams. When they’ve played well, execution and tenacity were the easily distinguished traits.

Outside of senior forward Cameron Clark, who scored 25 points in his final game in an OU uniform, the Sooners were not at that level.

“It was great, I learned a lot from the University of Oklahoma,” Clark said. “Coach did a great job of coaching me. I feel like he's the best coach I ever had. And it's been a great four years. Just looking back on it, I loved playing with these guys and I'm just looking for them to do great things in the future.”

How much is absorbed from how the season ended will be telling for OU. Players were bombarded with questions about the postseason for the last two weeks. As admirable a job as Kruger has done over the last four seasons, the Sooners are now 0-5 in the NCAA tournament and the Big 12 tournament.

Winning in the postseason is the ultimate goal in college basketball. Teams spend the entire regular season jockeying for a high an NCAA tournament seed as possible. The Sooners grabbed a five seed, something few would’ve imagined going into the season.

But it’s over after a second straight one-game stint in the NCAA tournament.

Kruger looked on the bright side Thursday night. His team was young. Clark and backup forward Tyler Neal were the only seniors.

“It’s so disappointing in the short term. But you’re right. This group made when you think about the steps — didn’t win in the NCAA or the postseason, and it’s true — but the steps they took from October until now are really huge,” he said. “Last year, we took some steps. This year, we took some more. We have to keep taking more. This group — as hard as it is in the short term — will keep working hard.”

There’s a hump OU still has to get over. The profile of the program grew this season. But they were reasons why the Sooners entered the NCAA tournament pegged as a potential upset victim.

“I guess people know what they’re talking about. We had the game won. We never should’ve lost,” Hield said. “We have to learn and grow. We have to work hard this summer and get back at it in November.”