Tahlequah Daily Press

March 21, 2014

March meltdown

Sooners stumble down the stretch in upset loss to No. 12 seed North Dakota State

By JOHN SHINN
CNHI

— SPOKANE, Wash. — It was hard to tell if Oklahoma was blessed or cursed in the final seconds of regulation Thursday night. With 38 seconds to play, it was up by four. A survive-and-advance NCAA tournament victory over North Dakota State seemed probable despite the inability to get defensive stops or make critical shots.

However, the final seconds of regulation and five minutes of overtime provided a conclusive answer. The Sooners were cursed to an 80-75 loss to the Bison and an abrupt exit from the NCAA tournament west region.

“Tough one to lose,” OU coach Lon Kruger stoically said after a gut-wrenching game.

The Sooners (23-10) were another victim of the No. 5 seed hex, joining Cincinnati, which was in the east region but fell to Harvard earlier in the day at the same venue, as teams executed by No. 12 seeds on Thursday.

OU’s demise was shocking in that respect only, not in how it played out on the court.

North Dakota State (26-6) shot 52.9 percent (27 for 51) from the field. Point guard Lawrence Alexander, who entered the game averaging 10.8 points a contest, scored a career-high 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting.

The apathy toward defense has been an on-again, off-again issue for the Sooners. Their intensity for it grew in the latter half of the regular season, but was absent Thursday night.

“They fought, kind of outhustled us on rebounds and things like that,” OU forward Cameron Clark said of North Dakota State.

The Sooners almost survived despite the struggles. They led by four with 38 seconds left. However, both Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins both missed free throws in the final seconds that could’ve kept the Sooners’ lead at two possessions.

The misses made Alexander’s line-drive 23-footer with 11 seconds remaining enough to erase a three-point deficit.

OU had three shots to claim a win in regulation, but a 3-pointer by Buddy Hield, a jumper from just inside the free-throw line by Woodard and contested layup by Isaiah Cousins as the buzzer sounded all bounced off the rim.

“It’s upsetting to miss them three shots, but we were still pumped up to go into overtime,” said OU forward Ryan Spangler, who scored three points and grabbed seven rebounds. “We gave ourselves a chance to win at the end and it didn’t happen, so we got more time to do that.”

The body language said something else. OU played like a team that had already lost in the extra session.

The game was tied with three minutes to go, but an 8-0 run by the Bison put the game away.

The Sooners played close games all season. More often than not, they won them by outexecuting foes in the final minutes.

The Bison just wouldn’t go away.

Clark scored 25 points, but the senior’s final game was close to a solo act, offensively. Hield, who was OU’s leading scorer entering the game and most of the season, finished with nine points and was just 1 for 9 from 3-point range.

“This one is going to hurt for a while,” Hield said. “I didn’t feel it shooting the ball the whole night. I had the looks, I had the looks that I usually make. I just didn’t feel myself shooting the ball.”

Cousins scored 17 points, pulled down a game-high eight rebounds and had three steals. It was one of his best games of the season with the exception of the free throw he missed with 25 seconds left, opening the door for Alexander’s game-tying 3-pointer.

Still, Cousins was Kruger’s choice to handle the ball on the final possession of regulation. The last play was an isolation play for him to take the ball to the basket. He easily got to the paint, but kicked it out to Hield for an open 3-pointer instead of taking a shot.

“I don’t know if he bobbled it there when he got to the rim or didn’t quite feel comfortable finishing there, but we had two or three looks at it,” Kruger said.

Settling for a 3-pointer was one of the Sooners many foibles. They were 12 for 30 from beyond the arch and shot just 34.7 percent (25 for 72) for the game.

The Bison only attempted 14 3-pointers, connecting on six. Four of them came from Alexander. Trayvonn Wright was 2 for 4 from beyond the arc en route to 14 points.

Afterwards, the Bison reveled in the Cinderella story their victory ignited. However, the Sooners’ loss didn’t catch anyone off guard. They lacked a big margin for error all season. Thursday’s loss showed why.

“We didn’t do the things we needed to do to win,” Clark said.