West Virginia’s press is designed to do just that.
It destroyed Oklahoma three weeks earlier in Morgantown, WV, but in the rematch in Norman, it was the Sooners who went from victim to vigilante.
The Sooners attacked the West Virginia press, breaking it down early and leaving free points at the other end. Baskets that were fast-break opportunities for the Mountaineers just 18 days ago fueled a 71-52 victory for No. 21 Oklahoma, which knocked off a ranked opponent for the fifth time this season in 10 games.
“If you allow them to press without making them pay when you break it, they’re going to keep pressing,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s free money for them. When you make them pay, it evens the scale a little bit. We didn’t give them any points off turnovers, and we got a bunch off turnovers and a bunch against their pressure.”
Oklahoma (15-7, 6-4 Big 12) had said that it was ready before, just hours before departing for West Virginia earlier this season. There’s a relative cheapness to those words until they’re proven true. The Sooners had words before the game, but after the victory, they had it in writing.
Oklahoma led by as many as 21 points in the closing minutes before unloading the bench. The Sooners outscored West Virginia, 27-8, off turnovers, in the paint, 38-22, and on the fast break, 20-6.
After committing a season-high 22 turnovers against No. 15 West Virginia in the first meeting, the turned the ball over just 13 times, the fewest turnovers forced by the Mountaineers (18-4, 6-3).
“We really wanted to focus on making sure guys were in the right spot and space out in full court,” said Oklahoma point guard Jordan Woodard, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds. “That made it easier to move the ball up the court. Luckily, we were making shots so they really couldn’t press up on us.”
The shots that Oklahoma, which finished with its highest shooting percentage (61.4 percent) since 2005, made early would have been hard to miss.
Up by just three points with 13 minutes to play in the first half, Oklahoma finally started to cut through the Mountaineers’ defense, which had led the nation in steals, turnover margin and offensive rebounds.
Oklahoma took the next five minutes to go on a 13-0 run – one free throw and six-straight finishes at the rim. Five of those dunks or lay-ups came off an immediate pass.
“We moved the ball around and found open guys,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “Those are the things we worked on all week. We did not want to make it hard on ourselves. If they’re going to press us like that for that long we have to hit the open guy and make open buckets.”
West Virginia, which played without starting forward and top rebounder Devin Williams, pulled within eight points midway through the second half, but Kruger, who had clearly prepared his team mentally and physically for the press better, had a tactical move up his sleeve.
The Sooners, who utilized a guard as the inbounds passer to help break the press, went with a four-guard line-up that fueled a 10-2 run.
“They weren’t real big at that time, either,” Kruger said of the line-up. “It did hurt us on the other end as far as matchup go. But it gave us more ball handling to match up with their quickness and not turning it over.”
The West Virginia press, which had been so dominant this season and baffled Oklahoma on the road, was almost non-existent inside Lloyd-Noble Center.
“What press?” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins jokingly asked after the game – although without cracking a smile. “They were very good. They were very, very good. But as I have said a thousand times and continue to say, the guy can really coach. It’s not like I’m going to outsmart a whole lot of people in this league. We have to execute, and we didn’t execute.”