KANSAS CITY – This week in practice, Oklahoma Sooners All-American Buddy Hield told his teammates that he wanted the one-on-one defensive matchup with Iowa State forward Georges Niang. Midway through the first half, he took over the responsibility from forward Ryan Spangler.
After five quick points early and 17 in the first half, Hield told Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger to give him the ball. He responded with 39 points, only knocking down two 3-pointers and scoring around the rim to help Oklahoma to a 14-point lead in the second half and buoy the Sooners until the final minutes.
Hield slid over to take a charge, which he jokingly called the first of his career and said broke it hip. He then drew a second offensive foul, forcing Spangler into a double take – surprised by Hield’s willingness to give up his body.
He accepted the Big 12 Player of the Year award surrounded by his teammates, who he credits for his success, before the Big 12 Championship quarterfinal against Iowa State. He pointed to his mother and his family, who he said he plays for every game, after the Sooners’ 79-76 victory.
There were a lot of messages on the court for Hield on Thursday night, but the loudest was the statement he made, telling everyone that he’s the best player in the country.
“As a big-time player, you know everybody is watching,” Hield said. “You have to perform on the big stage. You just come out and compete, put the ball in the hole and execute and try to make plays for your teammates.”
This is the version of Buddy Hield that Oklahoma (24-6) needs in March. It’s a better version than the one that made the conference player of the year race a one-horse affair by December. It’s a reboot of the player who struggled against Big 12 opponents who saw him for the second time.
Hield attacked the basket, spinning in the lane and finishing with his left hand – a move he worked on in the summer with Isaiah Cousins. Hield scored a regular career-high 39 points, the second-most ever scored in the Big 12 Championship and the most by a senior.
“He’s always in a zone,” Cousins said. “That’s his personality. He’s always ready to play. That’s why he’s been focused this year.”
Third-seeded Oklahoma, which plays No. 2 West Virginia at 8 p.m. Friday night in the semifinals, had lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship in two of the last three years. The Cyclones were looking for their third-straight tournament crown.
Hield nearly put that out of reach with nine minutes to play.
After drawing his second charge of the game against Abdel Nader, Hield knocked down a pair of technical foul free throws before and and-1 alley-oop dunk. His lay-in on the next possession made is a 7-0 running, and Spangler’s put-back the next time down court gave Oklahoma a 14-point lead.
Niang, who scored 25 of his team-high 31 points in the second half, wasn’t about to let Oklahoma run away with the game. Iowa State (21-11) chipped away at the lead slowly. With four minutes to go, the lead was down to just six. Nader hit a 3-pointer off a feed from Niang with 1:18 to go.
Then Spangler, the scapegoat of last year’s semifinals loss after missing a late lay-in, redeemed himself. After an air-balled 3-pointer by Hield, Spangler jumped around Iowa State forward Jameel McKay, tip-toed the sideline and somehow threw the loose ball of McKay’s leg. Oklahoma didn’t score, but a few more seconds ticked off the clock.
Spangler hit two free throws with 38 seconds to go, and Hield hit two more before he capped the game with a fast-break dunk.
“Ryan has got the same mentality every ball game, every day in practice,” Kruger said. “He’s just a blue-collar guy that lays it out there for his teammates and swings away. He’s a grinder and a battler. . . . You know exactly the effort ou’re going to get every night from Ryan.”
Cousins scored just 10 points, and Jordan Woodard had four. At one point in the first half, Oklahoma’s four starters not named Buddy Hield were a combined 1-for-13 – the only points coming on a Khadeem Lattin jump shot.
Lattin finished with just five points, and Spangler had 10 points and 12 rebounds. Oklahoma had its worst 3-point percentage of the season (19 percent), a worse shooting percentage than Iowa State, fewer rebounds that the Cyclones and just three assists in the second half.
Hield wasn’t quite Superman, but he saved his teammates Thursday against Iowa State.
Even outside of his comfort zone, Hield began to play exactly the way the Sooners need him to play over the final few games of his career.
“I just made plays for my teammates,” Hield said. “They needed it. The past couple years we’ve come to Kansas City, Iowa State has ended our runs. I couldn’t let that happen (Thursday).”
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