ANAHEIM, Calif. — As time ran out in Oklahoma’s 77-63 thrashing of Texas A&M on Thursday, Buddy Hield was dribbling out the clock after breaking a half-hearted press attempt by Texas A&M.
Instead of just hanging onto it and letting the clock die down, he found teammate Jordan Woodard with a bounce pass, then walked up to him and pounded him on the chest as if to tell him that he won the game for the Sooners.
In this case, Hield was right.
Woodard dropped 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting with five assists to lead the way for the Sooners as the Aggies sold out to stop Hield at the expense of other players.
“I just wanted to lock in,” Woodard said of his performance on the biggest stage. “Coach told me to just make sure I’m ready and locked and ready to shoot because a lot of attention goes on, you know, the other guys, Buddy, Isaiah, Ryan, they’re going to focus in on them. So I’ve got to be ready and find an open spot.”
He wasn’t the only one to step up though. Hield had his first double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but the rest of the guys were equally as important. Khadeem Lattin and Ryan Spangler each had 10 points in the frontcourt. Christian James had 12 points off the bench. Isaiah Cousins only scored two points, but he had eight assists as the Sooners recorded a season-high mark with 23.
Despite being the team with the singular individual performer synonymous with college basketball this season, the Sooners truly put in a team effort to come away with the win to send the program to its first Elite Eight since Blake Griffin and Willie Warren wore the Crimson and Cream in Norman.
“We had a lot of good ball movement,” Woodard said. “Coach has been preaching for us to move around, even without the ball, off-ball movement, and the guards were able to get into the lane and find the bigs for easy lay-ups and dunks to start off the game. So it was really just playing good team basketball.”
And that team mentality makes sense, given how hard Texas A&M sold out to stop Hield. The Aggies basically had a player face-guarding and staying tight up on Hield all night, which created a lot of extra lanes for the Sooners to attack. Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso — the player tasked most of the night with guarding Hield — even admitted that the team probably did not take the rest of the Sooners seriously enough.
“Yeah, we just tried to keep him from touching the ball as much as possible,” Caruso said. “The other guys did a good job of playing off them. We might not have given them enough credit.”
It seems unlikely teams will do that again. After all, the Sooners knock down 11 3-pointers per game at a ridiculously high rate. And when teams stick tight on Hield, it allows the rest of their team driving lanes for kickouts and open looks at the rim.
“When people hug Buddy and deny him, that frees up some space on the interior,” coach Lon Kruger said. “So anytime we can get by and create a two on one at the rim, we like that, of course. Again, when you take one of their defensive guys out of the rotation defensively because he’s hugging Buddy, then that maybe frees up a few opportunities.”
For his part, Hield understands the defensive pressure that is applied to him, and is happy to get his teammates involved by creating better space for them on the floor.
“Coach prepared us early enough, if they start double-teaming or whatever,” Hield said. “He already had a game plan set for that. So we just made plays and driving and kicking them. Hit the guy that is open and trust the guy to make the next play. So trusting each other and trusting the offense. That’s what we need to do.”
It seems that Oklahoma is back to playing the team basketball that saw it reach the No. 1 ranking earlier this season.
The other 11 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament should beware making the same mistake Texas A&M did in underestimating the supporting Sooners.