The Sooner basketball team beat West Virginia 72-62 Wednesday night to raise their record to 11-6 in the Big 12 and 22-8 overall. OU finishes out the regular season at TCU on Saturday.
Last season, OU beat West Virginia 83-70 in Norman on March 6 to raise the Sooner record to 11-6 in the Big 12 and 20-9 overall. Then the Sooners went to TCU and lost. And lost to Iowa State in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. And to San Diego State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
So there’s still work to be done for these Sooners, despite the perception of a better team and a better season. A three-game losing streak is no way to finish off a season. Go to TCU, take care of business, then show well in Kansas City. That’s the way to prep for the NCAAs.
But the victory over West Virginia was solid, for this reason. OU didn’t shoot it well. In fact, OU shot it poorly. With 10 minutes left in the game, the Sooners trailed 43-40 and had made 14 of 43 shots. That’s 32.5 percent. From then on, OU played like the team that has rejuvenated Sooner hoops. Here’s what I saw and heard.
* OU is getting better, because its bench is getting better. D.J. Bennett makes a big difference. He only played 15 minutes against West Virginia, but that’s a marathon compared to earlier in the season. Bennett didn’t even play in the Big 12 opener at Texas, then played just 13 minutes total in the next three games.
But Lon Kruger is relying more and more on Bennett. He played 15 minutes Saturday against Texas, then was solid Wednesday night. Bennett’s numbers won’t wow you; two points and two rebounds in 15 minutes. But this OU team needs a big body who can help off the bench, and Bennett, a 6-foot-8 junior-college transfer who sat out last season, is supplying that.
Bennett was instrumental in the stretch that turned the game. OU trailed 43-42 until Bennett’s two foul shots with 10:20 left. On West Virginia’s next possession, Bennett blocked a shot by Eron Harris, and Buddy Hield nailed a 3-pointer to pad the Sooner lead to four.
“D.J. was huge, when he went in the ballgame,” Kruger said. “Blocked just a couple but affected some others. His length at the rim was really important.”
The Sooners need play like that from Bennett in March.
* The Sooners shot 30 3-pointers. They shot 25 2-pointers. Shooting a bunch of 3-pointers, so long as they are mostly decent looks, is good strategy. But it means an off night will mean your demise in the NCAA Tournament.
OU needs to keep penetrating and finding closer shots. The best offense is built around 3-pointers and shots from the paint.
* Hield was 0-for-7 from the field when he made that 3-pointer. Over a span of 3:37, Hield launched five 3-pointers and made four. OU’s lead went from 44-43 to 59-50.
Shooting is contagious. Hield’s teammates combined to make five of their last seven after the lid came off Hield. So that’s 9-of-12 shooting the last 10 minutes. The Sooners finished 41.8 percent (23 of 55). Big difference from 32.5.
“Good win,” Kruger said. “I thought West Virginia did some things defensively to kind of knock us out of rhythm in the first half. I thought the guys adjusted to it. Proud of the guys. Wasn’t a night where it was real smooth. They kept plugging, found a way to win.”
* Uh, Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins would endorse Kruger’s assessment. WVU did play good defense, and then it didn’t.
Huggins, who in post-game press conferences is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, stings not with volume but with content.
“I thought we knew who he was,” Huggins said of Hield. “Some of our guys must not know who he was.
“Looked to me like he was wide open. We didn’t try to contest it very much.”
Huggins was not pleased with his team. “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but Kevin Noreen (WVU’s lumbering big man) doesn’t run as well as everybody else runs,” Huggins said. “If he can get back, why can’t the rest of ‘em get back? He gets back. Why can’t the rest of us get back?
“We gotta find Buddy. We gotta find him. For awhile we did, then we have those breakdowns. The truth is, one guy gave up 11 consecutive points. One guy. Which probably means I’m a bad coach. I should have got his ass out earlier.”
I assume Huggins meant Mountaineer guard Eron Harris, though I’m not positive.
* Huggins is great to interview. He says interesting things.
“I heard a term the other day I kind of like,” Huggins said. “We can’t play sticky ball. We got too many guys that play sticky ball. Ball sticks in their hands. We’re a whole lot better team if we don’t play sticky ball.”
Huggins bemoaned WVU’s lack of inside scoring, then bemoaned the failure to realize that.
“You can only catch it and pivot about 12 times before it’s a violation” for traveling, he said. “At some point, you ought to think about passing to one of your teammates.”
* I know this is not news, but OU is incredibly deep in the backcourt. Hield is a budding star, but the truth is, all five guards – Hield, Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, Je’lon Hornbeak and Frank Booker – can play and contribute. All five scored from seven to 13 points against West Virginia.
* In West Virginia a month ago, when OU lost in overtime, the Sooners were hurt by Harris, who scored 28 points and made six of 13 3-pointers. One of those treys tied the game with 20 seconds left in regulation.
Wednesday night, Harris made two of nine shots and scored five points.
“They really crowded him,” Huggins said. “They switched everything with him. Lon’s a good coach. And there’s 30 tapes out there. Get guys that listen, talk about tendencies, you ought to be able to guard ‘em.”
Great point by Huggins. It’s harder to score this time of year. More scouting data. That OU-WVU game in Morgantown was 81-81 going into overtime. This one was 72-62.
* West Virginia missed guard Terry Henderson, who scored 17 points against OU in Game 1. He’s missed the last few games with an undisclosed illness.
How much did the Mountaineers miss Henderson? “A bunch,” Huggins said. “All those open shots we missed, he’s got a pretty good shot to make ‘em. We miss ‘em.”
* Ryan Spangler had eight rebounds for OU. He’s had at least eight rebounds in 12 of his 17 Big 12 games. He leads the conference in rebounding at 9.5 per game, in both conference play and overall.
* West Virginia’s offense ended up being mostly Juwan Staten. The point guard had 24 points on 11-of-23 shooting. He took 15 of WVU’s 35 first-half shots.
Staten is a heck of a player. He leads the Big 12 in assists (5.8) and is barely trailing Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim for the scoring lead (18.4-18.2).
But the Sooners corralled Staten better in the second half. He had 16 points in the first half.
“Just tried to extend a little bit on him,” Kruger said. “You’ve got to be careful. He obviously made shots and shot layups (in the first half). You’d rather give up shots and not layups.”
Huggins said Staten is getting tired.
“He’s had the ball in his hands all year,” Huggins said. “He was giving the ball to Gary (Browne, a fellow ballhandler, near the end). I think he was tired. At one time, he was playing more minutes than anyone in the country.”