The Sooners were embarrassed by Iowa State early in the week, losing a 20-point lead in the second half of a game that would have kept them in the hunt for the Big 12 regular season championship.
A Kansas team, with or without its top players, still posed the kind of immediate test that Oklahoma needed before the start of postseason, where Sooners’ coach Lon Kruger hasn’t won yet with Oklahoma.
Oklahoma needed to prove it could bounce back, and even within the game against the Jayhawks, the Sooners did exactly that.
“There are a lot of things that happened in the ballgame that we'll be able to refer to later on from an experience standpoint,” Kruger said. “. . . Any experience like that against a club like Kansas is going to be beneficial.”
Oklahoma, which earned a No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Tournament and will open play at 8 p.m. Thursday against Oklahoma State, was badly outrebounded in the first half. Kansas pulled down 14 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes alone.
In the second half, the Sooners allowed just two – and none in the first eight minutes. Oklahoma finished with 18 offensive rebounds of its own, after five in the first half, and set a season-high.
TaShawn Thomas was miserable in the Sooners’ first game against Kansas – four points, four rebounds and six turnovers – and things weren’t much better in the first half Saturday. He and Ryan Spangler changed that.
“Me and Ryan spoke before halftime, I said, 'Man, they're killing us on the boards. Me and you know we're better than this, let's pick it up,’” Thomas said. “I guess when we said that, it just picked up the mentality for the whole team because coach always tells us it kind of starts with me and Ryan.”
After blowing a lead late against Kansas the first time around, Oklahoma stayed poised with its slim advantage – even regaining it late in the game. The Sooners went 5-for-7 from the free-throw line in the final 3:30.
Oklahoma was able to bounce back in the middle of the game, an adjustment that they couldn’t make against Iowa State when the Cyclones went on their big run.
And Buddy Hield bounced back immediately – missing 14 of his first 19 shots before hitting the buzzer-beater.
“This group has done a great job,” Kruger said. “This group has had a great February. . . . They played in those games that made a difference in terms of a championship opportunity. You hope that experience will pay off in the future.”
Oklahoma has won nine of 11 games since its losing stretch early in conference play.
After losing every game that was decided by less than eight points through the first 25 of the season, Oklahoma has now won four of its past five games. All of them were decided by seven points or less.
More than anything, Oklahoma proved it was able to bounce back mentally through the entire season, playing its best in late February and early March. There were plenty of games that the Sooners left on the table: the Creighton collapse, two games against Kansas State, sleepwalking to start the game against Washington and bad endings against Baylor and Kansas earlier this season.
Blowing a massive lead in the final week of the season against Iowa State might have been the worst. Going down to the wire with Kansas, no matter how short-handed the Jayhawks were, shows the change Oklahoma has gone through.
“There was just a lot of games that you could just look back on and say if we would've done this, if I would've done that, if I would've played a little better then we could've won,” Thomas said. “Of course, we would've probably won the championship. But life happens and everything doesn't go as planned. We just hope to keep on playing hard and continuing into the postseason.”