The Oklahoma Sooners reach the Final Four, a rare feat in college basketball

Khadeem Lattin and Christian James are heading home, and Dante Buford gets a second chance

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The first time Oklahoma Sooners coach Lon Kruger made it to the Final Four with Florida in 1994, he didn’t really understand exactly how hard it would be to get back.

Twenty-two years later, he’s finally headed back with the Sooners.

Tell Isaiah Cousins from four years ago that he’d be headed to the Final Four after Saturday’s 80-68 victory against Oregon, and he would have said “Yeah, we’re going to the Final Four.” And after last year, Cousins would have been certain after he knew who Oklahoma had coming back on its roster.

Oklahoma accomplished one of the more rare feats in college basketball Saturday. Programs put up a banner for all Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances – only giving the year as a mark of the achievement. For Final Four appearances, Oklahoma puts up an entire banner. That’s what the Sooners accomplished Saturday. They aren’t a four-number stitching.

They are a banner.

“It’s very exciting,” Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. “Just battling with Khadeem for two years, me and Jordan for three years and Ryan and Isaiah for four years, it’s been pretty special.”

The Sooners played true team basketball Saturday, finding the open shooter consistently and working hard on defense – showing the type of focused effort that had eluded them through a February lull.

Getting to the Final Four is a team accomplishment.

“Whether it was me scoring points or Isaiah initiating the offense or Ryan doing the dirty work, we all had a part in doing this,” Hield said. “So, I’m just happy for our leadership that brought us this far.”

It was Kruger who brought it all together. He drew up plays and brought calming influence for the Sooners, something Oklahoma guard Jordan Woodard said after the game is one of the reasons for the improvement.

Kruger lost in the national semifinal in his first trip to the Final Four. The Sooners have a chance next Saturday to reach a point further than Kruger has ever gone and a place Oklahoma hasn’t been since 1988, when the Sooners lost to Danny Manning and Holy Cross.

It has been Kruger who played a big role.

“We wouldn’t have gotten to the Final Four without coach Kruger,” Oklahoma forward Khadeem Lattin said. “He’s a great coach, so I don’t know if we got him to the Final Four or if he got us to the Final Four, but we’re going. Hands down to coach. It’s just an awesome experience to have.”


James and Lattin going home

Lattin had a consistent refrain after Oklahoma’s Elite 8 victory.

“I’m coming home,” he told just about anyone who would listen.

Immediately after the game, Oklahoma freshman Christian James hadn’t been hit with the reality that the Sooners were going to play potentially for the national championship in his hometown.

Both Lattin and James are from Houston, where Final Four action starts next Saturday. It’s especially unique for Lattin, who will be trying for a national title on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather David Lattin winning the title with Texas Western and a starting lineup of five black players – the first time in college basketball history.

“It’s awesome. I can’t believe it,” Lattin said. “I get to go home on the 50th anniversary. It’s in my own city, and I play in front of my family. It’s blessed. I haven’t been home in a while. I’ll see you soon Houston. I’ll see you soon.”

The Black Mamba and the Crimson Assassin

Hield got a chance to meet one of his idols, Kobe Bryant, after the Sooners’ Sweet 16 victory Thursday night.

After Hield scored 37 points, setting all kinds of records in the process, Oklahoma teammate Jamuni McNeace compared Hield to Bryant. McNeace said that Hield might have played better because Bryant was in the building.

Hield said that he didn’t know Bryant was in attendance for the Sweet 16 game. He also didn’t like the comparison to Bryant, a guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famer.

“I’m not Kobe Bryant, and they should not compare me,” Hield said. “I’m far away from him. I just make shots. It’s kind of cool, but me and Kobe are in two different classes and I don’t need to be compared with him.”


Winning down low

A big part of Oklahoma’s success Saturday night was the battle on the glass. By halftime, Oklahoma had as many offensive rebounds as Oregon had total rebounds. Oklahoma pulled down six more rebounds than the Ducks after being out-rebounded by Cal State-Bakersfield and Texas A&M and having the same number of rebounds as VCU.

How did the Sooners do it against a team that had a decided size advantage?

“Just being physical and strong in there and making sure we get body on them,” forward Ryan Spangler said. “I think they’ve killed a lot of teams because they used their size and length and athleticism and go up there and get the ball. (Saturday), I think we made sure we put a body on them and didn’t let them get that many.”

Lattin had a simpler explanation.

“We kind of just imposed our will in the paint,” he said.


Buford’s second try

With an open lane, Sooners’ freshman Dante Buford – voted the team’s best dunker – attacked the basket with Oklahoma ahead by four points midway through the first half. He was sent back by Oregon forward Jordan Bell.

The Ducks were one of the best blocking teams in the nation, and Buford learned the hard way. He wasn’t about to give up though.

“I had to redeem myself,” Buford said. “It was a good block by Bell, but I crashed the board and got a put back. Next time down, Jordan (Woodard) gave me an assist for a little two-handed flush.”

On the very next possession, Buford slammed home a missed 3-pointer by Hield. Three possessions later, Woodard found him for another dunk. Buford finished with four points but played one of his better games off the bench.


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