ANAHEIM, Calif. – Ryan Spangler embraced Buddy Hield near the free throw line, and as the buzzer sounded, he put his hands in the air and motioned to the crowd. It was only halftime, but Oklahoma was ahead by 19. It seemed almost certain that the Sooners were headed to their first Elite 8 since 2009.
When the final buzzer sounded on the 77-63 Oklahoma victory, the Sooners lined up to hug Jordan Woodard.
One day earlier, Woodard had said that he expected to be in the Elite 8. Hield was the first player to Woodard, who stood with the ball under his arm as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Hield said to Woodard, ‘Let’s go win some more.’
As Texas A&M keyed on Hield and tried to take him out of the game, the Aggies forgot about the rest of the Sooners. Most specifically, they forgot about Woodard. Like he had in high school before, Woodard rose to the occasion. The rest of the team played behind him and played some of its best basketball of the season.
“When it’s win-or-go-home situations, it’s important to play your best basketball,” Woodard said. “The coaches really helped me a lot to get focused. We’ve got great team confidence right now.”
As the shot clock wound down near the end of the first half, a loose ball bounced toward Woodard, who took a couple steps in from the 3-point line and floated a jumper of the glass that banked in through the basket. He knew at then that it was going to be that type of night for Oklahoma (28-7), which was making back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances for the first time in seven years.
The Sooners will play No. 1-seeded Oregon in the West regional final at 5:09 p.m. CST Saturday at the Honda Center.
In the second half, Spangler grabbed a full-court pass as he was flying out of bounds and two-handed it to Woodard in stride who was coming up on the right wing. Stepping into the shot almost perfectly Woodard knocked down another 3-pointer.
Woodard finished 5-for-6 from behind the arc and 8-for-11 from the field for a team-leading 22 points.
“I feel like each step we get more locked in because we’re getting closer to where we want to be,” said Woodard, who made 17 3-pointers all of last season. “Coaches, they really draw up great game plans for us to execute. It’s our job to go execute it. So as a team, we’ve just got to stay locked in.”
After falling behind early – and only momentarily – and shooting just 3-for-11 from the floor to begin the game, the Sooners got locked in. Oklahoma had separate runs of 9-2, 9-0 and 14-0 in the first half alone, closing the first 20 minutes on a 19-4 spurt.
Oklahoma finished with 23 assists, the second-highest total of the season behind a 29-assist mark against Baylor. It might have been Oklahoma’s best team performance of the season. The Sooners almost didn’t need Hield, the Naismith frontrunner.
“We’re a lot better,” Hield said of when the Sooners’ don’t need him to score as much. “Just sharing the ball, making plays and trusting each other: Coach always said once the ball sticks in your hands, that’s when you stagnate, and you can’t be hungry for shots.
“When we have ball movement and ball flow, everybody gets good shots and we’re not shooting bad shots.”
Hield committed an offensive foul in the first half, and before he made it back down court defensively, the Sooners’ coaching staff was yelling at him to move the ball. Oklahoma immediately scored seven unanswered points after his foul, and each basket came by way of an assist.
Oklahoma came into the game averaging 14.4 assists per contest. They had 12 in the first half. Woodard led five players in double figures. Spangler had 10 and eight rebounds as the Sooners were only out-rebounded by the Aggies by one.
Khadeem Lattin had 10, Hield scored 17 and Christian James scored 12 points off the bench – one shy of his career-high. Isaiah Cousins had just two points but recorded eight assists as the Sooners shot 44 percent from behind the 3-point arc, helping to send coach Lon Kruger back to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1994.
“I think we’re playing as well right now as we have since maybe mid-January, late January,” Kruger said.
That was about the same time Oklahoma was considered the No. 1 team in the country and playing like it deserved to be in the national championship conversation.
“Buddy, he’s gonna carry us,” Woodard said. “But we need to take the pressure off him so he doesn’t have to make as many plays like he did last game. It’s great for our team. We really have a great team. We were ranked in the top five for most of the season because we’ve got some great players from top to bottom.”