OKLAHOMA CITY – Just a few minutes in to Friday night’s game, Oklahoma had taken Cal State Bakersfield’s first punch – seven unanswered points before the Sooners even hit a basket.
Ryan Spangler drove to the rim after the Sooners had chipped away slightly at the early lead where he ran into Roadrunners center Aly Ahmed, who sent Spangler stumbling toward the baseline after contact that didn’t draw a foul.
The teams went the other way in transition, and Ahmed shot a long look back at Spangler. If it wasn’t already obvious by then to Oklahoma, at that point it was clear the Cal State Bakersfield was ready to play.
Oklahoma was in for a fight.
Over the next two hours, the teams traded thrilling runs, as is the usual custom in March – just not between a No. 2 and a No. 15 seed.
Oklahoma led by as much ten points midway through the second half, but it needed a late run, fueled by its experienced group of guards, to ultimately pull clear of a would-have-been shocking first-round upset with a 82-68 victory.
“Teams are going to keep fighting and nobody’s going to go away really,” Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. “You’ve got to really put somebody away and just keep making shot after shot. They’re a team that wouldn’t go away. They kept fighting, and we respect that.
“We just had to find a way to win.”
Had there been enough time, Cal State-Bakersfield might have had another run in it. Oklahoma’s second-half lead went from eight points to just four with four minutes to go.
From there, leadership – and a group of guards that made their 101st start together – took over for Oklahoma (27-7), which will face VCU in the second round Sunday.
Isaiah Cousins found Jordan Woodard on the wing for a 3-pointer, then Hield turned a two-handed block on one end into a step-back wing 3 to push the Sooners’ lead back to seven points. Hield cleared the defensive glass before Cousins attacked the rim and emptied the lane defense for a put-back by Khadeem Lattin.
It was eight points in less than 90 seconds.
“Three guys being able to handle the ball, being able to drive and kick, being able to make shots is always comforting because it doesn’t matter who has the ball,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “They’re capable of either making a shot or driving and kicking and making a play for someone else.”
Oklahoma went on runs of 14-2, 9-0 and 7-0 in the first half, but the Roadrunners, who were making their first NCAA Tournament appearance, stuck around, trailing by just seven points after a last-second 3-pointer by Ahmed. Even a 10-0 run midway through the second half gave the Sooners a lead that almost closed.
“When you go on a little run to get up 10 or 12 or whatever, you hope that you can get the opportunity for a chance to widen it out,” Kruger said. “. . It seems like every time we were in that position, they would make a shot or get a steal or whatever.”
Hield finished with a game-high 27 points, his nation-leading 17th 25-point game of the season, as Oklahoma advanced out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for only the fourth time in its last seven trips.
Cousins added 16 points and five assists, and Woodard had 15 points while going 5-for-8 from the field, his highest shooting percentage since Jan. 23.
“Guys just stepped up and made the right shots at the right moment,” Hield said. “We needed everybody to make plays for us, and everybody stepped up.”