After averaging 3.1 points through his first three seasons, including 1.1 last year, Neal has played a big role for the Sooners off the bench as they make their way to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
He’s averaging 6.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. In Big 12 play, his minutes have gone up slightly while his scoring average has increased to 7.5.
“What he’s done in these last 10 games or so, he’s done at times during his college career but the consistency is the big difference,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “Pretty much every time out now you kind of expect him to do that. In the past, it was more of when he did it, it was nice but there’s more of an expectation now. He’s responded well to the higher level of expectation because we need him to do what he’s doing.”
What the 6-foot-7 Neal has been doing is hitting big shots at critical times, creating matchup problems with forwards tasked with defending him away from the basket. Neal is fourth on the team with 28 3-pointers.
No matter how big of a role Coale played in convincing Capel to give Neal a chance, she’s enjoyed watching his development — especially this year.
“It’s been neat,” she said. “I think you always feel so happy for seniors to have the kind of year that their potential speaks toward. Joanna McFarland had one of those years for us (last year). Nothing makes you feel better as a coach to see them grow and bloom at the right time. He has been fantastic this year. He makes the big shots at big time(s). I think that’s a combination of character, mental toughness and patience.
“He’s worked and toiled and kind of done his thing in the shadows and when he got the opportunity to shine this year, he’s done it beautifully.”