OKLAHOMA CITY — Fifteen minutes into Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game against VCU, Oklahoma’s starting five had accounted for 31 of the Sooners’ first 32 points.
More than that, the scoring balance was simply indefensible: Buddy Hield had seven points, Isaiah Cousins had seven, Khadeem Lattin had six, Ryan Spangler six and Jordan Woodard five.
OU, meantime, had raced out to leads of 15-5 and 21-7.
“It is a demoralizing to an extent,” said VCU guard Melvin Johnson, “because coming into the game, of course, a lot of the attention is towards Buddy. And then his cast, Isaiah, Jordan, Spangler, etc., they all begin the half really well, and he didn’t even score at this point.
“So we were just like, ‘OK, Buddy eventually is going to continue to score.’ ”
Hurricane Buddy arrived as expected, first with a quick 3 to start the second half, then five points on rapid-fire possessions five minutes later, then an 18-point deluge during a 6 ½-minute span after VCU had rallied to take the lead.
In all, Hield stormed the Rams for 36 points, and the Sooners needed every one of them in an 85-81 victory at Chesapeake Arena.
Following free throws by Hield with 22.6 seconds and 9.1 seconds to play, Hield gathered with his teammates to sing the alma mater, then received rousing ovations of “Buddy! Buddy! Buddy!” from the throng of Sooner fans who made up most of the crowd of 18,000. After that, Hield shared fierce embraces with Woodard and then Cousins, then conducted postgame interviews, and then thought about both the past and the future, extolling lessons learned from last year’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Michigan State and how he hopes this year’s trip to Anaheim, Calif., will be different.
“They (Michigan State) just out-toughed us on the boards and we took plays off that we shouldn’t,” Hield said. “I took plays off that I shouldn’t have taken off. So, watching that film from last year, it hurts to see the things that we could have done to win the game.
“I’m just ready and glad we get the opportunity to redeem ourselves and to compete to go to the Elite Eight and potentially the Final Four.”
The No. 2-seed Sooners (27-7) hung on against VCU (25-11) and now take on Texas A&M, which improbably rallied late in regulation and beat Northern Iowa 92-88 in double overtime.
They would not be moving on without Hield, to be sure. His 29 points in the second half first provided separation, then kept the Sooners afloat, then allowed them to hang on.
“He’s got really great focus at that moment when the shot needed to be made or a play needed to be made,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “He’s done it so many times for us throughout his career and especially this year and again today. It seemed like every shot that he had that we needed, he stepped up and made it. And it’s not that easy to do, especially with the defense leaning on you and targeting you.”
Hield wasn’t so great in the first half, connecting on just 2-of-8 from the floor and 1-of-6 from 3-point range. But he was as good as he’s ever been in the second half, and that’s pretty good: he was announced on Sunday as a finalist for the Naismith player of the year award.
Hield said he was challenged by one of VCU’s players to start playing like the player of the year. So, he did.
“I think he just missed shots,” Johnson said. “In the beginning of the game, Korey (Billbury) and Jordan (Burgess) did a good job arriving on the catch, forcing him to take some tough ones. Second half they did the exact same thing, but instead, the ball went in. I mean, he’s a great player, so players make plays.”
And really, the Sooners didn’t need Hield to be the superstar in the first half. Not with Lattin throwing down pick-and-roll alley-oops and Woodard flinging acrobatic one-handers off the glass and Cousins hitting from everywhere and running the floor for breakaway layups.
“It’s good,” Hield said, “because that means we’re sharing the ball and everybody’s getting good shots. That means whatever we’re doing, the defense is having a hard time rotating and trying to pick their poison, who to pick on, because everyone’s finding an opening.
“Our teammates did a great job. I thought Isaiah getting down, driving and kicking in the paint, Jordan making plays, Khadeem catching lobs — everybody did what they needed to do to get open and get easy shots and good shots for us.”