Focusing on Progress
Judging from the reaction inside the locker room following Wednesday night’s game at West Virginia, you would have thought the Oklahoma men’s basketball team had just advanced to its second straight Final Four.
The program’s Twitter account (@OU_MBBall) shared 77 seconds of the postgame celebration after the Sooners stunned the No. 7-ranked Mountaineers 89-87 in overtime before a silenced crowd of 11,895 at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown.
“Those spontaneous celebrations, it’s hard to put a value on those,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “When your guys get a chance to do that, you never cut those short. That was pretty special.”
"Even when they were losing those games, they just worked at getting better and focusing on progress. That's always been the case. It was the same last year and will be the same next year."
— Lon Kruger
It was the highest-ranked opponent the Sooners had beaten in a true road game since Feb. 17, 1993, when their unranked squad upset No. 6-ranked Kansas 80-77 in Allen Field House.
The venture to Morgantown is the longest road trip in Big 12 Conference play for OU athletics every season (1,137 miles one-way), and it can seem considerably longer after a loss. However, time flies and good times roll following a victory.
The Sooners’ post-game bliss after Wednesday night’s shocker continued during their 45-minute bus ride south to the airport in Clarksburg, W.V. Players eventually slept during the 2½-hour flight back home that had them arriving in Norman around 2 a.m.
Interestingly, OU has enjoyed remarkable success at West Virginia. The Sooners now own a 9-4 series lead against the Mountaineers, which includes a 3-2 mark at WVU Coliseum. (OU football is 3-0 at West Virginia in Big 12 play.)
Wednesday marked the second straight season the OU basketball team won in Morgantown against a Mountaineers team ranked in the Top 10. Last season, the No. 3-ranked Sooners prevailed 76-62 at No. 10-ranked WVU.
OU’s record (8-9 overall; 2-4 in Big 12) has now crept within one game of the .500 mark and the latest triumph brought back good vibrations to players who were on last year’s Final Four team that advanced to the national semifinals and finished with a 29-8 mark.
“Yes, finally some good flashbacks,” Sooners junior forward Khadeem Lattin said with a laugh.
Through the first 16 games last season, OU was ranked No. 2 nationally and had lost only once, falling in a 109-106 triple-overtime instant classic against No. 1-ranked Kansas in Lawrence.
Through the first 16 games this season, the Sooners were fresh off a desperately needed home win against Texas Tech that snapped a seven-game losing streak, a dry spell that lasted from Dec. 10 through Jan. 14.
During OU’s 35-day, seven-game drought, four losses came by five points or less. On several occasions, the Sooners played well, but came undone with sudden spurts by the opponent. In an 81-70 loss at home to No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 10, the Sooners led 36-27 at halftime, but lost the lead for good when the Jayhawks opened the second half with a 13-0 run that took just 3:20 to complete.
“It was tough, it was heartbreaking, but it gave us some grit and some resolve,” Lattin said of the seven-game skid. “Hey, it definitely taught us a bunch and I’m glad we learned our lessons.”
The Sooners showed what they learned in the closing minutes against the Mountaineers, who entered the contest leading the nation in opponent turnovers at 24.3 per game. OU committed just 12 turnovers in the 45-minute contest.
The Sooners owned a 37-34 halftime lead, but found themselves trailing 66-51 with 8:56 remaining. OU regained its composure and 4½ minutes later had tied the score at 69 with an 18-3 run.
For the Sooners to make such an impressive comeback last year would have been no surprise with national player of the year Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler to lean on as seniors. This season, veteran guard Jordan Woodard is the only senior among the team’s top 10 players.
“Being young right there might have been better because (our young players) didn’t know you weren’t supposed to it, I guess,” a smiling Kruger said of his team’s late-game perseverance in Morgantown.
Woodard, who missed four straight games during the losing streak with an injury, scored the Sooners’ final six points of regulation, but missed a potential go-ahead free throw with 3.1 seconds remaining and the score tied at 77.
In overtime, Woodard captured the win by driving 75 feet through the Mountaineers’ omnipresent full-court pressure and converting a layup with 2.2 seconds left. “It was kind of a one-on-one situation,” Woodward said of the game-winning sequence. “I had (Ka)’Deem under the bucket, so I felt comfortable just getting it up on the rim.”
Woodard led the Sooners with 20 points (18 coming after halftime), five assists and four steals. “I just tried to redeem myself after missing that free throw at the end of regulation,” Woodard said. “As a team, we had to gut it out. Coming into a tough environment on the road, after dropping so many games, we collectively had to stick together. Coach, he trusted me with the ball late. My team just gave me confidence. They told me, ‘Go attack.’
“I had enough time, he (Kruger) just told me to go. Coach had a great game plan for us. We just stuck with it and it paid off.”
Next up for the rejuvenated Sooners is a 1 p.m. Saturday game at Lloyd Noble Center against Iowa State (11-6; 3-3), a projected conference title contender which has lost two straight by a combined 10 points. OU then has an 8 p.m. Big Monday game at Texas (7-11; 1-5).
Woodard said the momentum from Wednesday night’s upset “is going to be huge for us going into Saturday.”
Asked what he wanted his team to take from its seven-game losing streak, Kruger said, “I don’t think that’s something they think about when they get up every day. Even when they were losing those games, they just worked at getting better and focusing on progress. That’s always been the case. It was the same last year and will be the same next year.”