In each other past three years, the Sooners packed up after the first day of the Big 12 Tournament – doomed for the long drive back to Norman. Hield hated watching the semifinals and the championship game over the next few days on TV.
He won’t have to watch the semifinals this year, unless he wants to review the game film.
As Hield was subbed out of the game late in the second half with Oklahoma’s third victory of the season against Oklahoma State all but complete, he walked over to his coach, Lon Kruger, a man who brought plenty of success when he came to Oklahoma but had yet to win a postseason game with the Sooners in five tries.
Hield walked up, smiled that big smile and said, ‘I’ve got it.’ Instead of a bus ride home, the Sooners have a ticket to the semifinals after a 64-49 victory against Oklahoma State, the first three-game sweep against their Bedlam rivals since 1985.
“I feel like that's a wrap now, and we've got to go,” Hield said. “We've got to keep going, and we've got to go get it. It's our destiny to go get it.”
As the clock wound down, Kruger continued about his business – no change to his façade despite the hurdle he was about to surpass. The coach, who had led three different schools to the Sweet 16 and is the only coach in NCAA history to lead five teams to the NCAA Tournament, crossed his arms in front of his chest and stood in front of the bench, calling out plays and commands until the final seconds – even as the starters came out of the game.
He told point guard Jordan Woodard to slow play on the final possession before walking through the handshake line an congratulating each of his players.
Kruger never showed the exuberance of finally breaking through, but his best player could see it in his face.
“It's a blessing. It's a relief,” Hield said. “I know he's been stressing it so much.”
Just like its coach, No. 3 Oklahoma (22-9 Big 12) won its first postseason game in four years by leaning on what it had built all season: A hard-forged defensive identity.
Thursday night inside the Sprint Center wasn’t a clean game or a crisp offensive performance. Hield said it was a bit boring, and he hates boring games. Those kind of games are a little easier to take when the Sooners, who will play Iowa State at 8 p.m. tomorrow in the semifinals, get to keep playing the next day.
Hield hit an answer 3-point midway with 16:04 to play and the ensuing 12-0 run pushed Oklahoma, which trailed by six at halftime, back to the lead for good. “It feels good because you had to actually fight for it,” said Oklahoma forward TaShawn Thomas, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds. “It wasn't easy at all, and I don't think any game in the postseason's going to be easy. So the fact we were down at halftime, they kept it up for a little bit in the second half and we had to fight back, it just felt good that we can pull a win out like this.”
A sluggish start and a rapid finish might not have been the perfect formula for the Sooners’ first postseason win under Kruger, but it felt all too Oklahoma.
In addition to the run, Oklahoma shutdown all the Cowboys not named Le’Bryan Nash. For a 15-minute stretch in the second half, the Sooners outscored non-Nash Cowboys 34-1 to pull away for Oklahoma’s first victory against Oklahoma State in Big 12 Tournament history.
“The last two years, we’ve been playing pretty good going into the Big 12 Tournament,” said Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler, who pulled down 15 rebounds – the most of any Sooner this season. “We ended up laying a dud. (Thursday), we started off a little bit slow. We knew we didn’t want to lose this game and go home again.”