OKLAHOMA CITY — Live by the 3, survive and advance by the 3.
No. 2-seed Oklahoma did both on Friday at Chesapeake Arena, withstanding an early flurry and some late body blows from Cal State Bakersfield and pulling away for an 82-68 NCAA Tournament first-round victory.
OU got exactly what it needed: a late takeover from Buddy Hield, 8-of-11 shooting from 3-point range in the second half and strong guard play from Hield’s supporting cast in the form of 16 points from Isaiah Cousins and 15 from Jordan Woodard.
“They’re a really good team,” said Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes. “Really talented. Buddy is the real deal.”
Hield played 39 minutes before stepping away and high-fiving the Sooner bench with 31.1 seconds left, and the Sooners needed their star for all of it. More than just playing, he had to play like Buddy, like the frontrunner for national player of the year, and he did: 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 3-of-6 from distance, and 8-of-9 from the line. He also had two steals and two blocked shots.
A review of Hield’s meteoric finish:
- With his team clinging precariously to a 49-46 lead, Hield poked the ball away from Bakersfield’s Aly Ahmed, chased it down and pulled up for a 3 with 13:23 left. It was the first of three 3s in a row for the Sooners, building their lead back to 58-45. That steal and bucket changed the game for good.
- Still, the Roadrunners threatened a rally. So with OU up 58-52, Hield found a seam in the defense and drove in for a layup and three-point play with 8:55 to go that put the Sooners ahead 61-52.
- Bakersfield again climbed back to within 65-60 when Hield buried another 3, this time with 6:41 to play, putting Oklahoma up 68-60.
- At the 3-minute mark, Hield let Jaylin Airington dribble past him, then recovered and blocked Airington’s shot from behind. He then dropped in his third 3 of the half, a step-back shot from the left wing over Dedrick Basile that swelled the Sooners’ lead to 75-65 with 2:29 left.
- Hield also got animated in an argument with an official over a possession call, held on as Bakersfield’s Kevin Mays slung him to the ground on a tie ball and again blocked an Airington shot from behind.
No way Buddy Hield was going to let this game get away. No way.
“Buddy is passionate about everything he does, but certainly when you get to the point for all those seniors — one bad game or one loss and it’s over — it probably takes on even added significance,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “That’s typical of tournament play, especially for seniors.”
For Bakersfield, it wasn’t typical. It was the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and Ahmed’s comments on Thursday — that OU was a good team but not a great one — reverberated a bit on Friday, especially with Hield.
“Aly made that man mad,” Mays said. “But he’s definitely a great player. I respect him a lot.”
To his credit, Ahmed paid Hield tribute, but didn’t back down from his remarks.
“Of course, he’s a good player,” Ahmed said. “He’s a really good player and they are a good team, like I said. But I don’t think they’re great, like I said before. … I believe my team could beat them, yeah.”
Hield was the marquee, but OU’s triumph wasn’t just another episode of the Buddy Hield Show.
Cousins was 3-of-3 from 3-point range, Woodard was 3-of-5, and OU shot 50 percent for the game and 55 percent (11-of-20) from outside the arc. Post production was noticeably absent again, but with the way OU’s backcourt played, it mattered little.
Barnes said he was confident his team could score the upset, but figures the ultimately difference was the level of production at which Oklahoma’s experienced guards played.
“That was my biggest concern once their name came up,” Barnes said. “We’re not talking about one-and-done guys. We’re talking about a team that’s been together, played a lot of games, been in a lot of battles.”
The Sooners also got some timely defense — seven blocked shots, seven steals and just 40-percent shooting from the Roadrunners in the second half, finishing the game on a 13-3 run over the final three minutes.
OU returns to Chesapeake Arena on Sunday against 10-seed VCU for a shot at the Sweet Sixteen in Anaheim, Calif. It was probably good to be tested in the first round, and probably just as good that the Sooners finished like they did.
“It means a lot to our guys, having lost last year in the Sweet Sixteen,” Kruger said. “I think that’s motivating. They’re going to fight as hard as they can, there is no doubt about that, to avoid going out early in the tournament — certainly in the opening round.
“I thought they responded well when they were pressured there in the last few minutes, both offensively and defensively.”