ANAHEIM, Calif. – Less than a minute into the Elite 8, Oklahoma Sooners All-American Buddy Hield knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing and headed back down court. There was no three-finger motion to the temple and no smile.
Instead, Hield had a look of unrelenting focus in his eyes and a stern scowl across his face. He was all business Saturday night against Oregon. He was locked in. He was ready to take the Sooners back to the Final Four.
Just a few minutes after the final buzzer sounded in Oklahoma’s 80-68 victory that advanced the Sooners to the Final Four for the first time since 2002 and the fifth time in program history, Hield had a wide smile across his face and tears in his eyes. He hugged Isaiah Cousins at center court and stuck a finger in the air as he checked out in the final minute.
It wasn’t long before he had a black ‘Final Four’ hat on and a small piece of the net hanging down over his forehead.
Hield and Oklahoma were headed to Houston.
“It’s special, to be honest with you,” Hield said. “As a kid, you dream of having games like this.”
Stirred on by a social media challenge, Hield told Ryan Spangler before the game that he was going to “go off.”
The usually jovial and exuberant Hield didn’t crack a smile or make any gesture of celebration for almost the entire first half. Not until a 25-footer just before time expired in the first half did Hield even acknowledge what became a game that re-wrote the Sooners’ record book.
Hield knocked down the 3-pointer – his favorite shot of the game because of a salute from the crowd by his idol Kobe Bryant – to push Oklahoma ahead by 18 points with five seconds left in the first half. Oregon’s desperation heave missed behind Hield as he stuck his thumbs into his jersey and raised the stitched ‘Oklahoma’ from his chest.
Hield tied the Oklahoma record for an NCAA Tournament with 37 points, less than a week after scoring 36 in the second round. He matched a career-high with eight 3-pointers, also tying the all-time NCAA Tournament single-game record.
He moved into second all-time in Oklahoma and Big 12 scoring history while scoring 30 points for the ninth time this season – setting a Big 12 mark for career 30-point games as well.
Hield went 13-for-20 from the field and 8-for-13 from behind the 3-point arc. He helped send Oklahoma to the Final Four by making twice as many 3-pointers as Oregon with eight fewer attempts.
“I was really focused,” said Hield, who was named West Regional most valuable player. “I’m just happy I was able to back up my word.”
Hield’s focus turned into Oklahoma’s as the Sooners jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. Oklahoma (29-7) scored on seven of its first 11 possessions and took a double-digit lead less than 14 minutes into the game.
Oklahoma went on a 7-0 run and held Oregon scoreless for 5:10 of the first half. By halftime, the Sooners had more offensive rebounds than top-seeded Oregon had total rebounds. Oklahoma had 12 points off turnovers and 15 second-chance points.
The ultimate goal, the one the team set back in August, was in sight, and Oklahoma’s focus has spiked because of that.
“Just coming into the game focused on the ultimate goal: That is to get to the Final Four,” said guard Jordan Woodard, who jumped into Spangler’s arms after the game. “As a team, we were really focused, and I think we were just playing for something very important, so we just wanted to leave it all on the floor.”
Woodard and Cousins were named to the All-Tournament team along with Hield. Oklahoma will play on South Regional Champion Villanova on Saturday. Oklahoma beat Villanova, 78-55, in early December on a neutral court in Hawaii.
“We’re going home,” he screamed.
Hield was the last player up the ladder, waving to the crowd and smiling. He had reserved all his emotion for the post-game celebration.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who became only the fourth coach in NCAA Tournament history to lead two different schools to the Final Four, cut the final piece of net away from the rim. He waved it in his left hand and pointed to the crowd and his players, gesturing as if to give the credit away when it was really Kruger who built the Sooners into a Final Four contender.
Oklahoma was the first team to punch its ticket to the Final Four: A dream almost a year in the making.
“It’s easy to say, but when we actually won, it was a surreal feeling,” Woodard said. “It was real surreal knowing that it was our goal since August. . . . It’s just great to do it with this team. This team knew the goal from the beginning of the season.”