Hoops: "We're getting closer"

Before, the Sooners played no defense and their supposedly outstanding recruiting class appeared selfish and out to lunch. But, lately, OU has fought the good fight, giving it the old college try. The Sooners have become more endearing.

GETTING INSIDE

In this horror of a season, Oklahoma appears to have made the transition from underachieving and uncaring to the role of valiant loser.

Before, the Sooners played no defense and their supposedly outstanding recruiting class appeared selfish and out to lunch. But, lately, OU has fought the good fight, giving it the old college try. The Sooners have become more endearing, but they are still winless since Feb. 6.

"We're getting closer. I thought we did a lot of things right tonight," OU coach Jeff Capel said after Monday's 87-76 loss to Texas. "Little things end up being big things like free throw blockouts, blocking out in general, understanding stuff we go over in practice."

The Sooners (13-16 overall, 4-11 in the Big 12) seem to be in a spot that would have them praying for the end of the season. Strangely, that doesn't seem to be how OU is playing.

The effort the Sooners have shown recently makes one wonder if they might get past Texas A&M in their regular-season finale Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center or play the spoiler at the Big 12 tournament.

Of course, once that closes shop the real question is who's coming back next season. Tony Crocker and Ryan Wright are the only two seniors who receive playing time, but questions about Willie Warren and the Sooners' freshmen leave no clear answers.

Last week freshman post Tiny Gallon said he didn't know if he'd come back to Oklahoma for his sophomore season. For several players, their college basketball experience is nothing like they thought it might be.

The Sooners have at least two games remaining, at least two chances not to end the regular season on a nine-game losing streak. Yet if basketball ends early this season in Norman, which it most surely will, it's an offseason bound to have many more twists and turns.

Fans of high drama should be pleased.

TEXAS 87, OKLAHOMA 76:
Early, the Sooners put on a shooting clinic, and for a great deal of the second half, they were the epitome of the team refusing to cash in the season. But they could not keep it going.

OU didn't trail until 9:08 remained and led by double digits in the second half. However, Texas outscored OU 46-25 over the last 15 minutes.

Tony Crocker led the Sooners with 24 points and Cade Davis added 22, including five first-half 3-pointers. Damion James led Texas with 24 points. Four other Longhorns scored at least 12, while Texas shot 53.6 percent (30-of-56) from the floor.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Even when they follow the script these days, the Sooners don't stack up.

The game plan against Baylor was to challenge the bigs that have made the Bears a certainty to get into the NCAA Tournament.

"The big emphasis," explained forward Ryan Wright, "was to just go after them. One of the biggest ways you can take those guys out of the game is to go at them. Unfortunately, we didn't get the win. But that was our offensive plan."

Despite career scoring bests from Wright (14 points) and burly 6-9 forward Tiny Gallon (23), the Sooners suffered their sixth straight defeat.

Their unexpected contributions were offset by the inability of the Oklahoma backcourt to produce. Playing without leading scorer Willie Warren, who is bothered by an ankle injury, the Sooners went cold from outside.

With Oklahoma as thin as it is and struggling to match up underneath against some teams, any shortcomings can contribute to defeats. The fine line the Sooners are treading has frayed to a point they won't reach the postseason. Getting Warren back will help, though the sophomore is out indefinitely and when asked if the Big 12 tournament was a possibility, coach Jeff Capel could only say, "Maybe."

--G Willie Warren was once considered among the top five prospects on the NBA mock draft boards but has now fallen to a low first-round pick as injuries and ineffectiveness have hurt his stock. He has been dealing with a recurring ankle injury he aggravated again in a Feb. 17 loss at Colorado. Warren came into the week averaging 16.3 points, up two from last season, but the sophomore's shooting percentages have dipped.

--More than 60 former Sooners were recognized at halftime of the Feb. 27 loss against Baylor as part of an alumni reunion Oklahoma annually conducts. Among those who returned was Ken Pryor, who hit the game-winning shot to beat Texas and propel Oklahoma into the 1947 national championship game.

ON THE SPOT:
Only one year after a fantastic season, the Sooners are historically underachieving. OU lost its seventh straight game, matching a run last suffered in 1969. Barring an incredible run at the Big 12 tourney, OU will suffer its first losing season since 1981. That happened to be Billy Tubbs' first season in Norman, when OU went 9-18 before reaching the NIT's final four, where it fell to Dick Versace's Bradley program.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's amazing when you look at our percentages shooting (against Baylor) that we were actually in the game and had a chance to win late." -- Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

SEASON RECAP: Injuries have been constant for Oklahoma, which has missed its leading scorer, G Willie Warren, out with an ankle injury. The Sooners' thin bench has been unable to keep pace in the rugged Big 12, and their seven-game losing streak is beginning to adversely affect confidence, especially when shots do not fall.

PLAYER ROTATION:
Usual Starters -- F Andrew Fitzgerald, F Tiny Gallon, G Tony Crocker, G Willie Warren, G Tommy Mason-Griffin. Key Subs -- F Ryan Wright, G Steven Pledger, G Cade Davis.

GAME REVIEW:

Kansas State 83, Oklahoma 68.
Kansas 81, Oklahoma 68.
Baylor 70, Oklahoma 63.
Texas 87, Oklahoma 76.

GAME PREVIEW:
vs. Texas A&M, Saturday, March 6.

IN FOCUS: The way the Sooners are playing, a victory over A&M isn't too farfetched.

ROSTER REPORT:

--A bum ankle has G Willie Warren out for the season, making depth a big issue. Against Texas, only seven Sooners saw the floor. Starting guard Cade Davis said, "I guess you could say we ran out of gas."

--Tiny Gallon's improved play continues. Two games ago he was very aggressive in a loss at Kansas. Last time out, against Baylor, he was dominant with 23 points and 15 rebounsds. Against Texas, it was 15 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes, his time on the court a testament to his staying out of foul trouble.

--OU has allowed five straight opponents to shoot at least 50 percent and seven straight to score at least 70 points.

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