Leaning on defense, Oklahoma Sooners get back into top shape

With just three games left in the regular season, now is the time for Oklahoma to start peaking

Oklahoma hadn’t practiced its pressure defense much all season, but Sooners’ coach Lon Kruger called for it Wednesday night against Oklahoma State. The game still in doubt but finally picking up in pace, All-American guard Buddy Hield scored, picked up a loose ball and then threw down a dunk.

The Sooners were rolling, in the midst of an 18-1 run and pulling away from their Bedlam rival on the way to a 22-point victory.

Four days earlier, forward Khadeem Lattin blocked five shots in the first few minutes against West Virginia, starting a spark that led to Oklahoma’s biggest road win of the season. Solid half-court defense and an eventually Hield-led pressure keyed the victory against Oklahoma State.

The top 3-point shooting team in the nation didn’t come out of its losing skid and shooting slump by knocking down shots. Over the last two games, Oklahoma, which shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc for the first time in February, has looked far more like a Final Four contender because of its defense.

“It’s very important,” Hield said. “For us, after the first two losses, we see what we did on film. We needed to fix that. It started from the West Virginia game.

“We can guard anybody. We can be physical, aggressive and get stops. No matter how we score the ball, we have a chance to win. That’s what we’re banking off now: Defense.”

During the last two games, Oklahoma (22-5, 10-5 Big 12) has allowed West Virginia and Oklahoma State to shoot just 33.6 percent. Opponents shot at least 40 percent during Oklahoma’s losing stretch, including the win against Texas, and shot at least 42 percent in the Sooners’ three losses.

Oklahoma had held just one team below 40 percent from the field since Jan. 9 before the latest defensive surge.

“I thought defensively at West Virginia, we were as sharp there as we had been,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Then to come back home, I thought that tempo early was tough to get anything going defensively. In the second half, it was very important to create some activity and get some deflections.”

Both Oklahoma State and West Virginia are shooting better than 42 percent this season, so the Sooners didn’t necessarily feast on a hapless bunch – although both teams had been hampered by injuries (Phil Forte, Jawun Evans, Jeffrey Carroll, Jaysean Paige).

It was far more about Oklahoma and the attitude that is changing.

“Given the activity in practice the last couple days, I really like where we’re at,” Kruger said. “The energy is there. We’ve got three left in the regular season. It’s kind of a sprint now. It’s a long grind in Big 12 play, night after night, but now, the end is in sight.

“I think the guys’ energy picks up, not just here, but everywhere. I like where we’re at. I like our energy, the thoughts we have now. Most importantly, our guys understand how tough the challenge ahead will be.”

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