Lon Kruger said what everyone was thinking, but he said it better than anyone could.
“Buddy just makes shots,” Kruger said, “He’s just unbelievable.”
Buddy Hield was as unbelievable as ever Saturday night in Anaheim, Calif., dropping 37 points on top-seeded Oregon as No. 2-seed Oklahoma dominated the Ducks 80-68 and roared into the Final Four.
Houston, you have a problem — and his name is Buddy Hield.
“Oh, it’s special, to be honest with you,” Hield said. “As a kid, you dream of having games like this. But I just thank my teammates and my coaching staff to put me in the position to score the ball. And they gave me the confidence to put the ball up.”
He’s right. As good as Hield was — and he was otherworldly good on this winner-take-all night in the West Regional final, a performance for the ages — he got help on all fronts: 13 points in just 21 foul-riddled minutes from Jordan Woodard; 11 points and seven assists from frosty chill Isaiah Cousins; four points, six rebounds and three feathery assists from Ryan Spangler; five points, three assists and 10 blue-collar rebounds from fab freshman Christian James; six points (including an enticing 10-foot jumper) from Khadeem Lattin; and two important early slam dunks from Dante Buford that helped the Sooners mark Oregon territory as their own.
OU (29-7) shot 47 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three-point range and outrebounded the taller Ducks 38-32. Oregon (31-7) shot 39 percent and 19 percent.
This was Oklahoma’s night. This was Buddy Hield’s night. And the Sooners are headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2002.
It was the 104th consecutive start together for Hield, Spangler, Cousins and Woodard. And it became official: Kruger’s reconstruction project at Oklahoma, thanks to those players, is complete.
“Obviously, couldn’t be more pleased for this group of guys,” Kruger said. “They’ve invested so much. They’ve meant so much on the floor, off the floor, in the classroom, in the community. Just a special, special group.”
A special group led by a special player.
Hield went into the night needing 37 points to pass Jeff Webster for second all-time in OU scoring history, and he got exactly 37. He’ll not pass Wayman Tisdale (2,661), but with 2,282 points (plus his total in Houston), finishing second behind Wayman isn’t too shabby.
“My teammates just found me in open spots, really,” Hield said. “Just catching the ball in rhythm and just being confident in every shot I take. I know coming in I had to be aggressive for us to win. So my teammates found me in good spots and I was able to step in and get good shots in rhythm.”
Hield scored 17 in the first half, including a 4-for-4 start and a 28-foot buzzer-beater just before the break, then cooked the Ducks in the final minutes with back-to-back 3s from the right wing then the left wing.
After the one right before halftime, Hield jogged off the floor and looked over at his hoops idol, retiring Lakers star Kobe Bryant sitting nearby, and smiled.
“Yeah, that was my favorite shot,” Hield said, “… He saluted me afterwards, so that was the favorite one.”
The Sooners got separation early, bolting to a 19-point lead at the 2:19 mark of the first half and up 48-30 at halftime, then never let the Ducks get closer than 13 in the second half.
It’s OU’s fifth Final Four trip. The Sooners play No. 2-seed Villanova, which upset Big 12 champ and 1-seed Kansas in the Midwest Regional final. OU demolished Villanova 78-55 back on Dec. 7 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
It’s Kruger’s second visit to the Final Four (he went with Florida in 1994). Kruger’s legacy already was cemented for being the first coach to lead five schools to the NCAA Tournament, but now he’s one of just 15 coaches to take at least two schools to the Final Four.
“Always, it’s about seeing the feelings of satisfaction on the players’ faces, seeing their hard work, their investment rewarded, seeing them feel good about this right now,” Kruger said. “But they’ll feel even better about it years from now.
“Regardless of today, they would have been looked at as a very, very good team in Oklahoma basketball history. But now they’ve got a special spot with four other teams.
“Just unbelievably proud for them and happy for them. Again, the way they’ve handled it all in terms of representing well and remaining — the humility that they’ve taken from it, the way they’ve handled it, just unbelievable across the board.”