By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — The final minutes of Oklahoma’s 97-67 victory over TCU on Saturday offered a strange occurrence: Starters sitting on the bench sporting wide grins while holding towels they would not need to give up.
The win was in the bag. They could actually kick back and enjoy the final moments of the regular season. They earned it.
Now, the 23rd-ranked Sooners get to take something to the Big 12 tournament they haven’t at this point in the season for years — confidence.
“It’s important. For us, confidence is important,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We have a lot of guys — don’t have anyone that isn’t pretty confident in making shots right now.”
That was obvious in the dismantling of the Horned Frogs, which earned the Sooners (23-8, 12-6 Big 12) a third straight victory, fifth victory in the last six games and clinched the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament. They’ll face either seventh-seeded Baylor or the Horned Frogs, the 10th seed, at 6 p.m. Thursday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
OU’s five starters — Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, Cameron Clark and Ryan Spangler — were a combined 26 for 46 from the field. Leading bench scorers Je’lon Hornbeak, Tyler Neal and Frank Booker were a combined 5 of 9 from the 3-point range Saturday.
It easily could have been a triple-digit effort if OU wanted. Instead, Kruger opted to rest his players. Cousins played a team-high 28 minutes Saturday. No one else was on the floor for more than 26.
It has been years since the Sooners could head to the conference tournament feeling this well about how they’re playing. From 2010-12, OU needed to win the event to prolong its season and, of course, didn’t come close.
Last year, the Sooners were lackadaisical in the regular-season finale at TCU and suffered a stunning loss. They never really recovered from it.
OU struggled to make shots against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament and exited in the quarterfinals. The same happened against San Diego State in the NCAA tournament opener.
What took place at the end of the 2013 season was still fresh on OU’s minds Saturday.
“Last game, we weren’t able to put the ball in the hole how we wanted to,” said OU guard Buddy Hield, who scored 24 points Saturday. “But I’m glad we got to close the season how we wanted to against a tough TCU team. Coach Kruger did a good job preparing us for this game.”
Will it carry over the Kansas City, Mo., this week and into the NCAA tournament? There is no way to know for sure.
But it would take something to change for a decline to occur.
“It’s not like, so-and-so’s in a three or four game slump and can’t make a shot. You have that a lot of times this time of year,” Kruger said, “but this group feels good about making shots right now. Obviously we hit some open looks today that are going to be tough to come by next week.”