Tramel: It wasn't easy, but Sooners' victory at Texas sets up OU basketball for a special season
Nothing came easy for Lon Kruger’s Sooners on Tuesday night in Austin against fifth-ranked Texas.
Their last basket came on an Austin Reaves drive in which the whistle blew and everyone in charcoal -- yes, the Sooners wore charcoal jerseys -- held their breath before the referee signaled a block, resulting in a 3-point play.
Their penultimate basket came after a pass into the post was deflected, and two Longhorns and three Sooners fought for the loose ball like a football scrum after a fumble, and FIVE seconds passed before Elijah Harkless grabbed it and from his butt flipped it to De’Vion Harmon for a layup.
Another OU field goal came when Brady Manek missed a foul shot and Texas’ Greg Brown inexplicably tipped the rebound into the basket.
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Reaves made a baseline shot from behind the backboard.
Jalen Hill, with two 3-point makes all season before walking into UT’s SuperDrum, made two in the second half alone.
Those unlikely points accounted for six of OU’s 11 second-half field goals. The Sooners had a 78-70 lead with 3:50 left in the game and didn’t score again until Reaves’ foul shots with 18 seconds to go. But OU held on for an 80-79 victory over the fifth-ranked Longhorns, a verdict that suddenly stamps the Sooners as potentially in the midst of a special season.
OU, 10-4 overall and in a virtual tie for second place in the Big 12 at 6-3, is ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll, 22nd in the NCAA’s all-important NET rankings and owner of victories over Kansas, West Virginia and Texas. With five of OU’s next six games against teams ranked in the top 11 -- Alabama, at Texas Tech, Baylor, at West Virginia, Texas -- the Sooners suddenly have reached the national stage.
“Since the start, we’ve honestly thought we could be this team,” said Reaves, who scored 23 points against Texas and played a tremendous floor game, with six rebounds, four assists and just two turnovers in 39 minutes. “We’ve still got a lot of things to improve on, but like I said, we’ve always thought we could be this good and honestly better.”
Granted, Texas was without coach Shaka Smart and starters Courtney Ramey and Jericho Sims. The former is averaging 13.9 points a game; the latter is UT’s latest in an assembly line of NBA-caliber big men.
In this pandemic season, such discrepancies are the rule. OU had all hands on deck, but Manek hasn’t been himself since returning from COVID protocols. He played eight minutes, scored one point and missed all five of his shots.
The Sooners won with their versatility, showing the ability to adapt.
Victor Iwuakor, the 6-foot-8 energy bar, played just seven minutes total the previous two games. But in 14 minutes against Texas, Iwuakor was the perfect counter for Texas’ long, tall jumping jacks. Iwuakor had five rebounds, five fouls, two blocked shots and four made foul shots. With Iwuakor on the court, OU outscored Texas by 16 points.
Hill, the sophomore utility man, hit three corner 3’s, played excellent defense and provided the Sooners with calm and poise when things got tight. With 5.1 seconds left and Texas down three, Hill smartly fouled Andrew Jones, on a dribble, which prevented a game-tying shot. And on Hill’s subsequent inbounds play, he deftly got back inbounds before grabbing a ball that had been tipped by UT’s Donovan Williams.
Of course, Harkless was his usual disruptive self.
The Sooners needed every hustle play possible on a night when Harmon committed seven turnovers and Umoja Gibson missed all five of his 3-point shots.
“What a battle,” Kruger said. “Couldn’t quite pop it. Some big-time plays. Happy for the guys that we hung on and got it in the right column.
“We didn’t have a lot going, quite frankly. We were kind of searching. Wanting the clock to run out instead of locking in and guarding ‘em like we needed to.”
But OU’s depth shone through. Kruger relied on nine players, and Manek, a 3½-year stalwart, played sparingly.
“Some games, guys are going to play more,” Kruger said. “E.J. (Harkless), Kur (Kuath), Brady. Guys settle into that. They understand different guys, different nights.”
OU went 12-6 in the Big 12 for three straight years and were seeded at least fifth or better in the NCAA Tournament, culminating with Buddy Hield’s 2016 Final Four team. Since then, the Sooners haven’t surpassed .500 in conference, and their NCAA Tournament seeds were 10, 9 and probably a 10 if the pandemic hadn't scrapped March Madness in 2020.
“Just a work in progress every year, this year probably a little bit more so,” Kruger said. “Didn’t have a scrimmage, didn’t have an exhibition game, didn’t have as many non-conference games. But yeah, but what they’re doing right now, they’re really guarding right now. We didn’t rebound it great, but we made progress in those areas. This group will continue to do that.”
Only now, under the glare of the spotlight.