SWEET REPEAT: Oklahoma Sooners looking for redemption after being bounced in the Sweet 16 last year

Oklahoma makes it back to the Sweet 16 behind guard duo and inspiration from playing for a teammate

OKLAHOMA CITY – Last year left a bad taste in Oklahoma All-American Buddy Hield's mouth. The Sooners lost in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State, cutting their NCAA Tournament run short.

Now, he’s heading back for the second straight season – the first time Oklahoma has been to back-to-back Sweet 16’s since 2002-03.

“It’s really great,” Hield said. “That’s why I came back to school. I couldn’t go out like that. We had unfinished business. We just have to go out there and have fun.”

Oklahoma is headed back to the Sweet 16 after re-creating its lost December offense, when the Sooners moved the ball with reckless disregard for their own stats.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger showed Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins old film before Sunday night. It was from their first season together, when stats really didn’t matter and nobody was playing for NBA Draft position or Player of the Year honors.

Hield said they looked like that film in the first half against VCU. At one point in the first half, every Oklahoma starter had between seven and five points.

“It’s good because it means we’re sharing the ball, and everybody’s getting good shots,” Hield said. “That means whatever we’re doing, the defense is having a hard time rotating and trying to pick their poison.”

The play has Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.

“There’s 16 teams after (Sunday) that are going to have a shot,” Kruger said. “That’s all we’ve got. We’ve got to line up and win a tournament next weekend.”


Playing for Akolda

In the early hours of Saturday morning shortly after Oklahoma beat Cal State-Bakersfield, Oklahoma center Akolda Manyang learned of a death in his family.

He spent Saturday in the hotel room alongside teammate and close friend Bola Alade before flying back to his hometown in Minnesota early Sunday. Alade called Manyang the “rock of his family,” and Jordan Woodard said before Manyang left, Manyang told Oklahoma to “take care of business.”

“We played our hearts out,” Hield said of playing for Manyang. “We started out emotionally and go after it. I feel so bad for AK. He’s been through a lot, not just now, but in his past.  He’s had a lot of deaths in his family. He’s had a lot. I just hope everything goes well. We’re his family. When he comes back we’ll soak it up, and we’ll be here for him.”

Manyang, who was coming off the most impactful game of his career with the Sooners in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, lost his mother and father early in his life and another family member when he lived in Texas almost 10 years ago.

“We were definitely playing that game for him,” Woodard said. “AK, he’s been my big brother. I’m praying for him and his family. We’re playing for AK right now.”


Woodard, Cousins pick up the slack

Even superstars go cold, and when Hield had just seven points in the first half and shot just 25 percent from the field, he had a few teammates step into his void.

Woodard and Cousins combined for 22 points in the first 20 minutes, and Woodard added another seven points before Hield got hot with about 10 minutes to play.

“I just wanted to get to the hole and try to make some plays and not settle for jump shots,” Woodard said. “But we’ve got a lot of playmakers, so it’s hard for the defense. . . . It was easier for me to get to the hole.”

Hield missed the final four minutes of the first half in foul trouble and said that he enjoyed missing time. It let him to be a cheerleader and gain an even greater appreciation for his teammates.

“Jordan and Isaiah, they did an unbelievable job,” Hield said. ”I was on the bench with two fouls. It was great to see them step up in big moments and make shots for each other. That’s what we did in the beginning of the year: Make plays for each other.

“. . . I’m really proud of Jordan. Jordan really took us 30 minutes until I got hot. I’m really glad he was able to step up in big moments.”


Battle inside

Khadeem Lattin made a beautiful rim run in the first few minutes Sunday night and slammed home an alley-oop from Ryan Spangler. The next possession, Lattin scored off an offensive rebound.

Two possessions later, he took another feed from Spangler for another dunk. Oklahoma had established its interior without throwing the ball into the post. It created space for the rest of Oklahoma’s offense.

“It gave them some kind of room to relax,” Lattin said. “It made me more of a threat so the defenders couldn’t just stick to the guards.”

Lattin also held VCU forward Mo Alie-Cox to no shots and no rebounds in just eight minutes of play.

In that second half, that mismatch flipped in the other direction. Lattin, who made big plays for the Sooners on the offensive glass in the second half, scored just two points in the second half.

Meanwhile, Alie-Cox scored 10 points and had four rebounds in the second half. His physicality also opened up rebounding lanes for the Rams, who had 10 offensive rebounds in the second half.

“Alie-Cox is really tough inside,” Kruger said. “I thought Khadeem opened the game battling him pretty well. . . . Second half, he got away a little bit, got loose a little bit. But he’s such a good player, you know he’s going to fight and do different things in the second half.”

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