By JOHN SHINN
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s hard to beat a team three times for several reasons. The most glaring was on display Thursday night at Sprint Center.
No. 17 Oklahoma played like a squad that had swept Baylor during the regular season. The Sooners’ problem: the Bears changed.
The 78-73 loss to Bears, which forced a one-day stay in the Big 12 tournament for the third straight year, bared little resemblance to the regular-season meetings.
Baylor (23-10) was a struggling team when it lost to OU by 16 points on Feb. 8 at Lloyd Noble Center. It had won eight of nine games since, shifting from one of the league’s biggest busts to hottest teams.
The hot squad showed up Thursday night. Forward Isaiah Austin dominated on both ends of the floor, scoring 18 points, blocking five shots and turning OU into a paranoid team whenever he was on the floor.
He was certainly in Ryan Spangler’s head.
In the opening minutes, OU guard Isaiah Cousins hit Spangler on a back-door cut. The potential layup turned into Austin’s first blocked shot of the night.
“All week we worked on getting on two feet and pump faking, but I don’t think we did that today like we practiced,” Spangler said. “So I think the things that we practiced, we need to bring to the game.”
Would have helped.
Challenging Austin would have shown that the Sooners (23-9) came ready for a battle. The Bears were ready for one. They never trailed and were up by as many 21 points early in the second half.
Cory Jefferson scored 14 points and yanked down 11 rebounds (eight in the first half) and Royce O’Neale also finished with a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Baylor guards Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip also added 12 points each.
All had an edge Baylor lacked when it faced the Sooners in February.
“I think Baylor, again, got into us early, especially on the boards,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “They were quicker to loose balls, dictated with Austin’s presence inside. I think that had more of an effect on us than us not wanting to play. I thought we entered the ballgame in the right frame of mind, but I thought Baylor dictated.”
OU’s frame of mind changed in the second half.
Cameron Clark scored a game-high 19 points and Buddy Hield added 15. They helped the Sooners whittle the deficit down to four points with 90 seconds remaining.
It was a 3-point barrage that helped OU get back in the game. It made 12. OU jacked up a season-high 35 of them. Some of the over-reliance on the long ball was due to the deficit. But OU’s timidity in going to the basket was evident, too.
“We could have did a better job just being more aggressive. But credit Baylor, they came out and popped us,” Clark said. “We didn’t do what we needed to do to get the win.”
Point guard Jordan Woodard took an open 3-pointer with about a minute left that would’ve made it a one-possession game. The Sooners didn’t get it into that range until Woodard connected on 3-pointer with four seconds left.
It was too little too late. The regretful loss was sealed. There was no autopsy required for why.
“We weren’t tough enough,” Hield said. “They out-toughed us and we need to be tougher and we just need to be more greedy. We need bulldogs on the court. I think we change that mentality this coming week.”
There’s more to come from OU. Its spot in the NCAA tournament has been secure for weeks. It entered the day at No. 21 in the Ratings Percentage Index. Thursday’s loss will not cause a sizable shift.
However, OU wanted to win the Big 12 tournament and enter March Madness on a confident roll. The way OU played in the first half Thursday night eliminated that opportunity.