NORMAN — Eleven minutes passed before the season-opener novelty wore off.
Once the Oklahoma settled in, it was a former starter who began to lead.
Coming off the bench for the first time since his freshman year, senior Andrew Fitzgerald triggered a key spurt midway through the first half that propelled the Sooners to an 85-51 victory over Louisiana-Monroe before a crowd of 3,456 at Lloyd Noble Center. Fitzgerald had 12 points and six rebounds — grabbing two boards and scoring off Amath M’Baye’s pass as Oklahoma pushed its lead to 10 during that stretch.
“Me and Coach had our meeting, and he said that I’ll come off the bench some games,” Fitzgerald said. “He still wants me to be aggressive and help this team out scoring wise.”
In a day and age of one-and-done players, second-year coach Lon Kruger played all five of his seniors and all three of his juniors on the roster.
“A lot of times guys don’t stay around for four years,” Kruger said. “Got five seniors, so that experience, whether it’s starting or coming off the bench, is invaluable. This is a group that’s motivated to get to postseason play.
“We talked about that a lot in the offseason and in the summer and fall in preparation with the season to keep getting better throughout the year.”
Senior starter Steven Pledger led the team with 15 points. He had five 3-pointers and one rebound. But M’Baye was the biggest contributor all-around. The junior transfer finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks in his first regular season game with the Sooners. His mother, who traveled from Bordeaux, France, was in the stands to see his first collegiate start.
At one point, with 17 minutes left in the second half, freshman Isaiah Cousins grabbed a turnover near midcourt, ran toward the basket and fed the ball off the backboard. M’Baye grabbed the bounce pass off the glass and slammed it home. The fans loved it.
And the players in the postgame press conference said they were just excited that so many of the dunks — six in all — were finished. In the first half, senior Romero Osby and M’Baye had back-to-back dunks. Freshman Buddy Hield and junior Tyler Neal also slammed.
Although the upperclassmen led the team, the Sooners’ freshman trio contributed despite their slow start. Je’lon Hornbeak scored 10 points, and Hield added nine. Cousins added two points and five assists.
Unlike exhibition play, the freshmen were not as explosive from beyond the arc. They combined to go 2 for 9 in 3-point attempts.
“This year, we’ve got a lot more depth,” Osby said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are really quick with the ball. We’ve got returning guys that are able to do some really good things, too, so the mixture of that along with more depth has really been able to give us a boost.”