By JOHN SHINN
PHILADELPHIA — A few minutes after Oklahoma’s season-ending 70-55 loss to San Diego State on Friday, an unaffiliated fan wondered aloud just how did Oklahoma manage to win 20 games?
The man had a point. The Sooners had just finished shooting 39.7 percent (23 for 58), could not buy a 3-pointer in the second half and only got to the free-throw line eight times in 40 minutes.
In truth, OU’s season ran like a three-act play. The last act was nothing but agony. The shooting woes over the final three games — losses to TCU, Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament and to the Aztecs — were a virus OU could not shake.
“It’s really frustrating,” senior guard Steven Pledger said. “We were hot and then something happened. I don’t know what it was, but we just stopped hitting shots.”
The reason why OU (20-12) was in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 was its ability to make the shots that didn’t fall over the last three games. It was one of the Big 12 Conference’s better offensive teams, averaging 73.6 points per game during league play and shooting 45.1 percent.
Breaking the 70-point barrier might have been enough to keep playing beyond Friday’s game at Wells Fargo Center. It probably would have been enough to get a better seed than No. 10 in the NCAA tournament South Region.
The postseason, however, always rewards teams that play their best at the end and punishes those who don’t.
“The timing for that was not good in this particular case for sure, when you’re finishing the season and going into tournament play,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “… San Diego State does a good job defensively, and they forced some shots, and they deserve some credit even though we had some looks that didn’t go down. It was a combination of the two, us not making shots. Credit the defense for doing a good job. But yeah, the timing of not making shots was not good.”
Perhaps it could have been overcome if the Sooners paired one scoring threat to go along with Romero Osby. The senior forward scored a game-high 22 points to go along with eight rebounds Friday night.
Like many games this season, Osby was the best player on the floor. The Aztecs didn’t have an answer for him. OU, however, was unable to present anymore tough questions for San Diego State.
Osby was 9 for 15 in the game. The rest of the team was 14 for 43.
“You know, that’s the game. That’s the game that we love. We hate it sometimes, but we always love it, and sometimes things just don’t go your way. I think that’s pretty much what it was,” Osby said. “But like I said, as far as struggling, offensively that’s always something that’s going to happen in basketball seasons, but we could have done some other things better. We still could have gone to the offensive glass more, still could have defended them more and made it a tight grind-it-out game. But all credit to San Diego State, they guarded us well and we didn’t guard them as well.”
Oddly, the arc of the Sooners’ season started with their ability to defend at a level it hadn’t in several years. They went 9-3 in the non-conference schedule because of a knack for getting stops in the final minutes of games and then pulling them out.
That defensive intensity coupled with a maturing offense had OU riding high well into February. Wins over Kansas and Iowa State in the second half illustrated how potent the Sooners could be.
However, starting with the stunning 92-86 overtime loss at Texas on Feb. 27 — the game where the Sooners let a 22-point lead evaporate in the final seven minutes — they started to recede.
The defensive stops weren’t as frequent and the shots stopped falling for anyone other than Osby.
“It’s the must frustrating thing I’ve been through since I’ve been here,” senior guard Sam Grooms said. “You see guys in the gym and you seem them shooting and you see them consistently work on their game; then it doesn’t give them results. It just blows your mind.”
There’s no need to keep looking for the answer. The season is over, and it was one OU should take pride in. The program is once again relevant and this group is the one that did it.
“As disappointing as it is right now to finish with a loss, these guys have been terrific and couldn’t appreciate what they’ve done any more,” Kruger said. “They’ve represented well and they’ve changed the program around, and we appreciate that a great deal.”
But no matter how much hard work is put in, you have to play your absolute best to advance in the postseason. The Sooners were not able to do that.