OU scores first NCAA tourney win since '09

TaShawn Thomas fuels third-seeded Sooners to first-round victory, 69-60, against Albany

COLUMBUS, Ohio – For much of the Oklahoma starting lineup, this was a return trip to the NCAA Tournament – a third time for the three juniors on the roster.

Senior forward TaShawn Thomas had never been before, and this week brought a mix of anticipation and worry.

He didn’t want his first – and last – trip to end after just one game, practicing with a renewed vigor of someone facing his final chance. Thomas waited his entire career to experience the NCAA Tournament, so when he finally got he chance, he wasn’t about to waste it.

It didn’t hit him until just before tip-off that Friday night could really be his last college game. Thomas played like it wouldn’t be.

It won’t be.

No. 3 Oklahoma, which hadn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2009, held off a few late spurts from No. 14 Albany to advance to the second round with a 69-60 victory, bolstered by 18 points and four blocks by Thomas.

“I kind of told myself that I had to have a good night,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to go home. If it was going to be my last game, I didn’t want to go out on a bad game. That’s what I told myself.”

After watching Big 12 Conference mates and fellow No. 3 seeds Baylor and Iowa State lose on the first day of the tournament, the Sooners (23-10), who were upset in the first round last year, weren’t going to be surprised or shocked.

Thomas made sure of that early. The senior forward, who transferred this year from Houston, watched more film this week than he had in the past and quickly exploited a mismatch inside.

“We need him to play like that,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “His confidence is high right now. We’re feeding it to him a lot. We’re going to keep doing that until the wheels fall off. We’re going to ride him right now.”

Oklahoma led the entire game, taking a nine-point advantage into halftime. Albany (24-9) never got closer than six points down the stretch as the Sooners came away with big answers to help coach Lon Kruger to his first NCAA Tournament win with Oklahoma, making him the first coach in NCAA history to lead five different teams to at least on victory.

One more win and Kruger will be the first coach to lead four schools to the Sweet 16. Oklahoma will play the Dayton at 5:10 Sunday.

“The guys all wanted to get a tournament win under their belt,” Kruger said. “I thought TaShawn probably had a little different edge to his practice all week, given that he hadn’t played in the tournament at all.

“He’s going to tell the other guys, this is pretty special. I think that was a good influence on the other guys in preparation.”

Thomas came to Oklahoma hoping that the Sooners could give him a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It was Thomas though, who gave Oklahoma its first NCAA Tournament victory since 2009.

“The guys are tired of losing in the first round,” said Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, who finished with 15 points. “We were fed up with that. It’s not our culture. We all came from a winning culture before we got here. It’s something you want to do and want to carry over. … It’s our time.”

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