For the Sooners, there might not have been a better player to be standing on the free-throw line needing to knock down shots to keep Oklahoma’s Sweet 16 dreams alive.
Woodard went from 7-for-8 from the line in the final minute to preserve the victory. He’d do it again immediately, not phased by the pressure nor the stage.
“My teammates gave me a lot of confidence, and in order for us to seal the game, that's what it's going to come down to,” Woodard said. “You've got to make free throws down the stretch, especially against a good team. They had good shooters, and we didn't want to give them any hope.”
Sitting in the stands, Woodard’s father Marcus showed little emotion – probably where the Sooners’ point guard gets his calm demeanor.
“He’s cool, conservative player, but when the time is on, he knows how to go get a bucket or get a foul and go to the free-throw line,” Spangler said of Woodard.
Lost in the turmoil of the East Region’s top seeds collapsing above the Sooners is the question of attire. If Oklahoma makes a run to the Final Four, it will do so wearing the same color in it next two games.
Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield isn’t exactly a fashion-isto, but he knows the importance of wearing white.
“White has been good for us,” Hield said. “We get to stick with that.”
Oklahoma has lost wearing white just once all season and has never lost in regulation.
Even in its most successful color, Oklahoma is seen as a bit of an underdog as the last No. 3 seed from the Big 12, which started the tournament with a trio of teams earning that distinction but only one making it out of the first round.
“We’ve been an underdog all year,” guard Frank Booker said. “It’s not really a big thing for us. We’ll don’t worry about that – seed and whenever that may be – we know there’s a team that we need to play and scout and see how they play and go out and get a victory.”
Downtrodden by bad years and a bad feel around the program, fourth-year coach Lon Kruger had a job to do when he took over the program in the aftermath of scandal.
Kruger had practice with it, reviving four other programs before coming to Oklahoma, and he knew exactly what had to happen. It’s been a slow process, but the Sooners have a much different feel about them than they did four years ago.
The change has been a process.
“We changed the culture a little bit,” Kruger said. “We developed the expectations a little bit and have continued to raise the bar. This group has done that – to their credit – and we’re proud of that.”
The increased expectations are ubiquitous: Fans, media and players all expect more from Oklahoma, which made the tournament for the third-straight year this season.
Despite making the Elite Eight in 2009, the Sooners never made three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament under Jeff Capel and haven’t since a three-year stretch from 2001-03. Thatstretch that also included three straight Big 12 Championships and a Final Four appearance.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that it’s been a while since the University of Oklahoma has been in the Sweet 16,” guard Frank Booker said. “Knowing I can be a part of it is a great feeling. I’m excited for my teammates and excited for my coaches. I’m excited to get back out there.”
Aside from playing each other last season when Michigan State was the No. 1 ranked team in the country, a loss that Oklahoma still resents, there are a few more ties between the two teams.
He obviously won’t play but the memory of his impact last season could be felt from the bench.
A NEW ENERGY
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was all about breaking through for Oklahoma, picking up that first NCAA win under Kruger despite having made two trips before 2015.
When Oklahoma did that against Albany, the feeling changed to not having a let down against Dayton.
The Sooners returned home for a couple days of practice in preparation for Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State, and yet again, he energy around the program has changed.”
“There's a different energy. You can see it,” Hield said. “You see the fans coming out, people that haven't come to practice before. It's different. People are taking notice of what we're doing. It's all fun”
Kruger had the program’s first closed practice of the season during the trip to Columbus, Ohio. Once again back home, the Sooners opened up the session to fans and students – as well as media.
There were a couple dozen fans at Oklahoma’s Tuesday practice, one of the most attended sessions of the season, and the players shook hands with just about everybody in attendance afterwards – thanking them for coming.
Oklahoma isn’t the only team riding an energy of success, though.
“We've just gotta go out there, lock in and use the energy we have going for us right now,” Hield said. “Michigan State feels like they have energy going, too, so we have to go in there ... and whoever's the tougher team is gonna win and it's gotta be us.”