By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
ARLINGTON, Texas –
Here's how you play a meaningful nonconference game when the wide, wide world of sports has yet to focus its attention on college basketball.
You schedule a road game against a foe playing in a new conference for one year before moving to another conference and playing in a glitzy new arena. The opponent has never played host to a Big 12 Conference team but its coach is building a solid program and scheduled the contest with the full expectation that it would win.
The campus is fired up by homecoming and the sellout crowd is jazzed by an inspiring national anthem and pre-game inspiration from the video board showing "Rudy" and "Hoosiers" clips.
"When I saw that homecoming parade (outside College Park Center), I knew there was gonna be a big crowd in here," Oklahoma senior Romero Osby said. "With all the circumstances, the odds were kind of stacked against us."
If you're the Sooners, Friday night's 63-59 victory over UT-Arlington provided all those elements that can contribute to an education of a team elements. The Sooners (2-0) crammed a semester-long syllabus into 40 minutes.
"This was about as good an opportunity you could get," said Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, whose team faces UTEP on Thanksgiving day in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. "UTA is a well-prepared team, well-coached. We're glad to get out of here with a victory because this was a game that could have gone either way."
Oklahoma missed 17 of its first 20 shots but the Mavericks (1-1) could only build a 16-7 lead in the first eight minutes. The Sooners controlled the rebounds and their trapping and switching pressure defense befuddled UTA into 15 turnovers in the game's first 24 minutes.
"We had some decent opportunities but missed some layups and some open shots," Kruger said. "We certainly need to make those shots early. It's part of the learning opportunity."
Oklahoma flipped the script with a 22-1 run over a five-minute span of the first half. The catalyst was Buddy Hield, one of a freshman guard trio that is expected to make an impact this season. Hield impacted OU's run with 16 of his team-high 17 points. He scored off an offensive rebound, made two 3-pointers and converted two three-point plays.
"Buddy was fantastic there in the first half, he scored about every way you can," Kruger said. "He's a good scorer and emotional player. He'll give us good stretches during the year."
UTA missed 12 of 13 shots and when the ball was clanking off the rim the Mavericks were turning it over. They made four of their last six shots to make it a 38-28 game at halftime but that deficit quickly grew to 46-30 in the first four minutes of the second half.
That big lead provided another learning opportunity for a team mixing five seniors with the three freshman guards and preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Amah M'Baye. UTA went to a full-court press and the Sooners turned into a fourth-grade CYO team.
Over 22 possessions, the Sooners managed nine points and committed eight turnovers. What went wrong?
"We couldn't dribble it, we couldn't pass it," Kruger said. "It's pretty tough to be effective when you can't do those things. UTA was active into their press, we didn't attack it."
Senior point guard Sam Grooms entered with 5:32 remaining and OU leading 53-51. He helped the Sooners handle the Mavericks' pressure. But UTA still managed to force a 57-57 tie with 2:46 remaining. But senior Steven Pledger nailed a stone-cold 3-pointer from the corner with 2:23 left to give OU a 60-57 lead.
"Steve's a senior, great shooter," said Osby, who had 10 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. "I saw him getting ready to shoot and I got in rebounding position but you kind of expect it to in."
OU, which made just 11 of its first 21 free throws, made nine of its last 11. Freshman Je'lon Hornbeak, who had missed four of his six attempts, gave the Sooners a 62-57 lead with 23.4 seconds remaining.
"I think we grew up a little bit tonight," Osby said. "Credit for coach Kruger scheduling this game."