ANAHEIM, Calif. – Christian James’ mom told him to pray.
The Oklahoma freshman wanted to be strong for his friends. But he took the Honda Center court Thursday night for the Sweet 16 against Texas A&M with a heavy heart. He came off the bench early and took a 3-pointer from the top of the key with Oklahoma down seven points.
It rattled and kicked out, but then somehow fell back through the rim.
“I thought it was ‘Baby Jade’ as soon as it went in,” James said. “I knew it was when it went in.”
James' performance was one reason the Sooners were able to advance to the Elite 8 with a 77-63 victory against the Aggies. OU will play No. 1-seeded Oregon in the West regional final 5:09 p.m. CST Saturday.
When Oklahoma was still celebrating its second-round victory against VCU on Sunday night, James got a phone call that broke him. His cousin called him, and he had missed a phone call from one of his best friend’s grandmother.
Three of his friends died as a result of a car accident late Sunday night coming back from a spring break trip, including James' former girlfriend, Jade Robinson, with whom James remained very close.
The crash instantly killed Brittanie Johnson, 18, and Brianna Robinson, 19.
Jade Robinson died at a nearby hospital a few hours later, the Houston Chronicle reported Monday. All three attended or were graduates of Bellaire High School, where James played and attended.
Just a few days before the accident, Jade Robinson, a star volleyball player, and James spoke about making it to the Final Four, which is being held this year in James’ hometown of Houston.
“It meant everything for her just to see me make it to the Final Four,” James said Monday before Oklahoma left for the Sweet 16. “It has just lit a fire under me even more. This weekend is dedicated to her.”
James built off those first three made 3-pointers, which kick-started Oklahoma into a first-half surge, and finished with 12 points, just one point shy of his career-high.
“I’m just doing it for her,” James said. “It motivates me even more to play better for the rest of the year, throughout my whole basketball career. I know this is what she wanted for me. I have to go out and do it.”
Boost from the bench
Oklahoma’s bench had been a problem for much of the season, but Sooners’ coach Lon Kruger started going to his reserves earlier in games as March rolled around.
James has occasionally come in to games before the first media timeout. Jamuni McNeace has made early plays, sometimes because of foul trouble with Khadeem Lattin. When the Sooners’ needed a bump against Texas A&M, it came from the bench.
“Christian James came in and gave us a big lift,” Kruger said. “Jamuni did a good job in there defensively especially. Dante gave us some good minutes. So really good to see that from our bench guys.”
James hit two 3-pointers, McNeace hit a hook shot and Dante Buford slammed home a dunk, all in the first half. McNeace and Buford combined for 21 minutes as only Buddy Hield played more than 32 minutes.
Oklahoma’s bench outscored Texas A&M, 16-14.
Foul trouble, no trouble
Oklahoma found itself in the bonus barely more than eight minutes into the second half. And yet, the Aggies never start a comeback.
After a first half that featured very few fouls, Oklahoma gave the Aggies a chance to get back in the game. Only Texas A&M never took advantage.
The Aggies shot 54.2 percent from the field but shot 50 percent in the second half. Oklahoma didn’t fare much better. The Sooners shot 44.4 percent – just 4-for-9.
Oklahoma-raised Ryan Spangler remembers the success that Blake Griffin, who is a fellow Oklahoman, brought to Oklahoma. He also remembers the lull after Griffin was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Now, he and Jordan Woodard, who was born and raised in a northern suburb of Oklahoma City, have put the Sooners have in the Elite 8 for the first time since Griffin was a Sooner.
“It’s big time,” Spangler said. “. . . I wanted to come back here and play. When Kruger got here, and he gave me a chance and I think we’ve made the most of it, and I think our fans are proud.
“I like to see our fans happy, and they deserve that. So, we got three more wins to get our goal, so we’re going to try to do that for our fans.”