Good shots. That’s the difference between winning and losing in many a basketball game. Good shots. Get better shots than your opponents, and you’re likely to win.
OU’s 80-75 overtime loss to North Dakota State on Thursday in the NCAA West Regional was the result of many things. But No. 1 on that list was quality of shots. The Bison manufactured better shots than did the Sooners. And became one of the NCAA’s Cinderellas.
Here’s what I saw and heard:
* I wanted OU to win. But you’ve got to be happy for North Dakota State. Biggest game in Bison history. One of the biggest games in state history.
And North Dakota State answered the challenge. Played with poise. Played with passion. Wasn’t afraid of the moment.
Coach Saul Phillips became a media favorite with his press conference Wednesday. But he showed he could coach a little, too. He had a veteran team that showed it knew how to win.
* North Dakota State shot 52.9 percent from the field. The Bison made 27 of 51. Of those 51 shots, 14 were 3-pointers. That leaves 37 other shots. Only eight of those 27 were longer than four feet from the basket.
The Bison shot (and mostly made) a variety of dunks, layups and drives to the basket.
The best shots in basketball are shots in the paint and 3-pointers. That’s from where your best value comes.
The Bison got good shots. They took their time, worked the ball and got good shots.
OU, of course, is a more uptempo offense. But the Sooners did not find the same quality of shots. OU took 72 shots; 30 were 3-pointers (OU made 12, a more-than-acceptable 40 percent). That leaves 42 2-pointers. The Sooners took 17 shots longer than five feet but inside the 3-point line.
OU for the game made just 25 of 72 shots, 34.7 percent. Hard to win when you’re outshot by 18 percent.
* Isaiah Cousins’ foul with 32 seconds left was a big play. And a mistake. I originally didn’t think so, but I’ve been persuaded otherwise.
The setup: OU led 65-61 with 39.2 seconds left after Jordan Woodard made one of two foul shots. With 32 seconds left, Cousins came over to try to trap North Dakota’s Taylor Braun but bumped him and was whistled for a foul. Braun made two foul shots to cut the deficit to two. After Cousins made one of two foul shots with 26.3 seconds left, Lawrence Alexander tied the game with 11.2 seconds to go, eventually sending the game into overtime.
I originally wasn’t mortified by the foul, for this reason. When you’re up four or five, in the final 30 seconds or so, it’s a moral victory to hold the opponent to two points. If you’re up three or four or five, and you can make foul shots, you control the game as long as the foe doesn’t rain 3-pointers on you. Limiting the Bison to two points kept the game’s control in Sooner hands.
But two problems with that. OU’s foul shooting proved to be shaky. Woodard had just gone 1-for-2, and Cousins was about to go 1-for-2.
Even worse, though, was the style of play. North Dakota is deliberate. The Bison are a well-oiled offensive machine. But they don’t play fast. They don’t get in a hurry. They find good shots by working at it. Braun was 35 feet from the basket, with his back to the basket, when fouled by Cousins. Chances are, the Bison would have worked the ball for quite some time. They would have run off clock to find a good shot. They weren’t predisposed to jack up a quick 3-pointer or something. It’s quite possible that North Dakota State would have worked the clock to 20 seconds or less. Then even if Cousins or someone else goes only 1-for-2 at the line, the Bison would have 15 seconds or so to get off a shot, not 26 seconds.
All of a sudden, North Dakota State would have to play quickly. That’s out of their comfort zone. With 26 seconds left, the Bison stayed in their routine. And delivered.
Cousins’ foul was a bad foul.
* As for Kruger’s team not fouling up three in those final 26 seconds, he clearly made the right decision. Some have compared this to Travis Ford’s OSU team not fouling Iowa State in the final five seconds in Ames a couple of weeks ago, but it’s not close to the same situation.
In the final five seconds, you absolutely foul. Iowa State needed three points to stay in the game. With only five seconds left, two points were irrelevant. The Cyclones had to have three.
With 26 seconds left, North Dakota State did not have to have three points. Two would have extended the game, and with OU having just gone 2-of-4 from the line with two solid foul shooters, Kruger had to wonder if he could count on two automatic points from the line.
Kruger said he instructed his team that if the game clock reached seven, foul. That seems solid reasoning to me. The game clock didn’t reach seven. With about 13 seconds left, Alexander elevated for a 3-pointer that went in, and the game was tied with 11.2 seconds left.
If a guy shoots a 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie, the defensive team does not get a chance to respond. With 11 seconds left, the defensive team does get a chance to respond, and the Sooners got three shots in the final five, wild seconds. Kruger made the right call.
“We would have fouled if it got later in the clock,” Kruger said. “We talked about if it got down six or seven seconds remaining, then we would foul. I thought our guys did a good job of having a clear picture of everything that happened prior to the shot.”
* OU’s defense on Alexander was not strong on that final shot. Our photographer, Sarah Phipps, got a great picture of the shot. Woodard is reasonably close to Alexander on the final shot but did not jump. When Alexander releases the ball, he’s two feet above Woodard. Literally.
The best shot is an open shot. And there are all kinds of ways to get open shots. Separation on the court. But also separation in the air. Alexander got separation in the air.
You don’t want to foul, and if you don’t jump, there’s little chance of a whistle blowing. But contesting the shot a little bit would have helped the Sooner cause.
“We thought we had him contained,” Cam Clark said. “He stepped up and made a big shot and tied the game.”
Alexander said the play was drawn up for Braun. “Supposed to be a quick iso, but coming out of the huddle, I told him if you don’t have anything I’ll be right there in the right wing. And he just gave me the bounce pass and I took the shot.”
* The sliver of good news for OU is this: with three sophomores and one freshman in the starting lineup, the Sooners should be an even stronger team next season.
“Our guys fought like crazy, last 25 minutes of regulation, to get back and finally get into a position to win the ballgame,” said Kruger. “Proud of our guys. They have done a terrific job, and as much as it hurts here in the short term, there’s not much to help with that. But in time, we’ll look back and see this group, for the program, took a big step and first of many more we need to take.”
* The dreaded 5-12 matchup took out two teams in Spokane: 12th-seeded Harvard beat Cincinnati, then 12th-seed North Dakota State beat the Sooners.
“There’s so many good teams in the tournament, obviously not a lot of difference,” Kruger said. “The depth and the quality of the depth is I think as good as it’s ever been. Not much difference in those ballclubs.”
I agree. If North Dakota State and OU played 10 times, it would be 5-5 or 6-4. And it might be 6-4 Bison.
* When OU struggled this season, it often was because of a failure to make outside shots. That wasn’t the problem Thursday. The Sooners’ 3-point game was effective – Cousins made four of five, Woodard two of three, Clark three of five. Only Hield’s 1-of-9 kept the Sooners from a fabulous shooting game.
But this verdict proved that OU didn’t necessarily live and die with the 3-pointer.
OU had 72 possessions and scored 75 points. That’s 1.04 points per possessions. For the season, the Sooners had averaged about 1.12 points per possession.
So the Sooners shot it better from deep than usual (37.8 percent), yet its offensive efficiency declined.
The lesson is clear. Shoot it well from deep, yes. But get easy shots, too.
“They did a good job controlling the defensive end,” Clark said. “They played great defense. I feel like we sped up and sometimes just rushed shots. But the second half, I feel like we came out and did a better job offensively. But credit them, they got the win”
* What happened to Ryan Spanger’s offense? Spangler was averaging 10 points a game going into the final games of the regular season.
But counting back from North Dakota State, Spangler’s scoring totals down the stretch were 3, 6, 10 (TCU, a rout), 4, 5, 9 and 7.
Spangler was 1-of-5 vs. North Dakota State. He took only one shot against Texas and just two against West Virginia.
Spangler was OU’s only inside presence. Playing against bigger foes virtually all season, Spangler hasn’t always had easy shots around the basket. But the Sooners need a little productivity from the paint. They didn’t get much in recent games.
* Saul Phillips spoke the truth when he said underdogs have an advantage in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s harder to be them than us in this situation, it is,” Phillips said. “It’s harder to be a 5 (seed) than a 12. I was at Wisconsin as operations guy. I’ve been on the other side of it. It’s hard.
“If we lose, everybody would have been disappointed back home for a night, and then they would have talked about how great of a season we had. Tell you one thing right now, do not sleep on this Oklahoma program in the next couple years, because with the youth that they have, the talent that they have, Lon’s going to have this thing cranked up pretty good, sooner than later.”
* OU now is 0-5 in the post-season under Kruger – 0-3 in the Big 12 Tournament, 0-2 in the NCAAs.
“Obviously, disappointed that we haven’t won in the conference tournament or here,” Kruger said. “This group’s done a heck of a job. They have made a lot of progress, and we got to keep getting better, keep making progress as a program and as a group, and they will do that.”
* Buddy Hield had an off-night shooting, 4-of-14, including 1-of-9 from 3-point range, but that’s forgivable. What Hield has to do is get better on defense.
Down the stretch against the Bison, Kruger situationally substituted, removing Hield on defense for Je’lon Hornbeak, then reinserting Hield for offense.
For Hield to be an elite player, that has to change. He’s got to be on the court at all times, except to rest.
“I didn’t feel shooting the ball the whole night,” Hield said. “I had the looks, I had looks that I usually make. I just didn’t feel myself shooting the ball. The ball didn’t bounce our way today. I hate seeing our team go like that. We had chances during the game, and we didn’t execute them like a veteran team, and it cost us.”
* The Sooners ended up 13 of 18 at the foul line. But OU did not do a good job getting to the line. The Sooners had just eight foul shots going into the final two minutes of regulation.
Here’s an example. On OU’s final possession, Cousins drove the baseline and got into the lane. But instead of going up at the basket and perhaps getting fouled, Cousins passed into the corner to Hield, who missed a 3-pointer. The ball bounced out to Woodard, who tossed up a quick shot. Then Cousins missed a follow shot with his back to the basket.
“Got exactly what we wanted,” Kruger said. “Isaiah was a little iso(lation) for that wing and get to the rim and make play. I don’t know if he bobbled it in there when he got to the rim or didn’t feel quite comfortable finishing there, but we had two or three looks at it. We just played iso on Isaiah and getting him to the rim, and he did a good job of getting there.”
But not a good job once he got there.
* North Dakota State’s fans turned out strong. Probably the second-most fans of the day, behind only Michigan State.
“Oh man, they were just amazing,” Wright said. “I want to thank those guys for coming out. I didn’t expect it, but I’ll take them every game. It’s been like that all season for us, with them coming out and supporting us.”
* Wonderful finale for Cameron Clark. The game started fabulous for Clark, who hit a pump-fake jumper to open the game, drew a foul on North Dakota’s Braun and completed the three-point play.
Then Clark didn’t score the rest of the half. But he had 22 points after halftime and put the Sooners on his back. His 13-foot jumper brought the Sooners within 59-57, his 3-pointer brought the Sooners with 60-59 and his 17-footer put OU in command, 64-61 with 59 seconds left.
In overtime, Clark was all of OU’s offense. He had eight of OU’s nine points.
* Woodard did not play well in his NCAA Tournament debut. His two early 3-pointers helped stabilize the Sooners and he had only two turnovers, but Woodard didn’t get much done with his penetration into the lane. He finished with 13 points, three assists and five rebounds, which are solid numbers, but the OU offense never found a flow.
Much of that is because of Woodard’s failure to find passing lanes off the dribble.
* Taylor Braun, North Dakota State’s star, looked like the lone Bison who was intimidated. He was billed as an all-around player who could create and pass and shoot. But he was shaky all game long, making terrible decisions. He played like you’d expect a Summit League player to play against a Big 12 heavyweight.
But Braun was solid down the stretch. He made the pass to Alexander for the game-tying shot.
“I think that sums up Taylor Braun better than anything,” Phillips said. “It was a dribble iso for Taylor. He didn’t have it, he stayed patient and where it says on the play-by-play, it says made three by Lawrence Alexander, right under that it says assist by Taylor Braun.”
* Alas, for OU, Braun’s teammates weren’t the least bit intimidated. Lawrence Alexander was phenomenal. But center Marshall Bjorklund was good, too, with 13 points and six rebounds despite a major cut on his eye. Forward Trayvonn Wright put the Sooners on their heels with two early 3-pointers.
And the Bison’s bench was solid. More solid than the OU bench. Chris Kading had five rebounds and a steal in his 24 minutes.
And Carlin Dupree became a North Dakota folk hero. The backup guard, who didn’t even get into the game four times this season and averaged just 8.2 minutes a game, much of it in mopup duty, was huge.
Brown fouled out with 1:17 left in overtime, and Clark’s subsequent foul shots tied the game 72-72.
Bringing the ball upcourt, Dupree was fouled by Woodard. North Dakota State was not yet in the double bonus, but Dupree nailed both foul shots to give the Bison a 74-72 lead. Then Dupree made a driving shot with 39 seconds left that extended the lead to four, with 39 seconds left.
When Woodard committed a turnover on OU’s next possession, the game was over.
“Carlin Dupree just played the loudest two minutes in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament,” Saul Phillips said. “I actually had gone to put Mike Felt in, and then I remembered, no, we better keep press-break first. First things first.
“So, I thought, ‘Carlin, go in there and pass and catch and get the ball to someone that was playing pretty well, like Lawrence.’ No, Carlin just smashed all over this ‑‑ I’m telling you, that’s a kid right there that had a lot of times this year where he had to DNP coaches decision (not play), and yet when it was really, really important, he had never lost faith.”
* Meanwhile, OU’s bench was mostly inconsequential. The Sooners’ four reserves combined to make three of 11 shots, including 2-of-7 on 3-pointers, with three rebounds, four assists, three turnovers and two blocks.
The OU bench outscored North Dakota State’s 11-8, but the Bison bench took just four shots.
* Alexander and Kory Brown both penetrated the Sooner defense easily at times. They combined to make nine of 14 shots from inside the 3-point line.
“We knew that L.A. (Alexander) and Taylor would both have to be able to get to the rim, and Kory doing it on the baseline as well,” Phillips said. “But we knew that the way that they were going to play us they were going to deny the guards up top and it’s hard if you’re just standing, you got to get inside that. We have played a bunch of games in a row where we played being packed defenses. And those, you drive in there like that, the raid comes, you get in trouble. We knew the raid wouldn’t be there. We really emphasized that in practice. You’re going to have your chance to get into the paint and there’s not going to be a raid there as you drive. L.A. definitely took advantage of it, and at times Taylor really took advantage of it. And that opened up things for some other people. It wasn’t the prettiest offensively tonight, but it was enough to get it done. And we played against the second place team from the Big 12, so I guess I didn’t expect a masterpiece.”
* The referees let the teams play. Bjorklund had the cut eye, and Braun had a huge scratch on his shoulder.
“I guess down low it was almost like a bar fight, I guess,” Bjorklund said. “Spangler was a great ‑‑ he’s a good player, very physical, we knew that coming in. So, yeah, just the whole game the refs were kind of letting us play and so we kind of played like that to our favor and we have dealt with games like that all year. So, the whole way through, man, it was physical.”
* Saul Phillips raved about coaching against Kruger.
“It’s Lon Kruger sitting on the other bench,” Phillips said. “He found some ways to keep them in the game. When you’re operating on all cylinders, everybody is a good coach. When you really, really are needed is when things are kind of breaking loose on you.
“He did something tonight, how about this, you talk about good coaching, I hadn’t even thought of this — 39 seconds left in the first half, we score, the clock runs, he tells his guy not to inbound until there’s 35 seconds to go and I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’re in trouble because I never even thought of doing something like that. I got to put that in the play book.’ I learned something from Lon tonight. But all respect for the kids, their program, pretty special night for a group of young guys that I’m extremely fond of.”