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'He left it all on the court': Kristian Doolittle's OU career ends prematurely with coronavirus cancellation

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Kristian Doolittle

Senior forward Kristian Doolittle's parents cheer for him before the game against Texas on Mar. 3.

Dwayne Doolittle was still inside his Kansas City, Missouri, hotel room when news broke that the Big 12 had canceled its conference tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Mere hours later, he was in the same spot when he learned the NCAA Tournament had received the same fate. Stunned, he texted his son, Oklahoma senior forward Kristian Doolittle, who — because of the cancellations — had now come to the end of his four-year journey in a Sooner uniform.

“They were on the bus and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s over,’” Dwayne said. “I texted him back a few minutes later and said, ‘You’re a pro now.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ and I said, ‘You’re a professional athlete now.’

“As quickly as his collegiate career ended, the next chapter for him to play professionally began. … His playing career didn’t end today.”

Elsewhere, Doolittle’s coach at Edmond Memorial High School, Shane Cowherd, was moments away from leading his team in the first round of the 6A state tournament before COVID-19 caused the postponement of all Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association state tournaments.

Cowherd was “shell-shocked” to hear that his team wouldn’t be playing that day, but when he heard that his former player’s career had met a premature end, his “heart immediately sank.”

“Competitors all want to compete, and I promise you there are very few competitors on the same level as Kristian Doolittle,” Cowherd said. “To have gone out without the opportunity to compete is disheartening. … I really wanted to see him go to three-straight NCAA tournaments, that’s really stinking hard to do and a lot of people don’t understand. 

“(For Doolittle) to have etched in his name as a part of an OU basketball legacy would have been a really cool deal. He’s been a great Sooner.

“Knowing Kristian, he’s gonna take this in stride. He’s disappointed I’m sure, nobody ever wants to end their career prematurely … (and to) something so unprecedented.”

Despite his career ending without one final shot at March Madness, the manner in which Doolittle's collegiate career came to a close is nothing short of eccentric.

Just days after Oklahoma knocked off two top-25 teams in back-to-back games, Doolittle and the Sooners fell in the final seconds of their final home game on March 3 against Texas, 52-51, behind a game-winning circus 3-pointer from Longhorn guard Matt Coleman III. 

Prior to the shot, Doolittle found himself shooting-two at the free-throw line with a chance to put Oklahoma up two possessions. He missed both shots.

As Doolittle walked off the Lloyd Noble Center court for the final time as a Sooner, his emotions ran high. Spiking his tailor-made face mask — that protects his broken nose — to the ground, his frustration was likely shared with the rest of the team as it appeared the Sooners' postseason aspirations had taken a hit.

“He was in the position he wanted to be in during the Texas game,” Dwayne said. “Senior on the line, 80 percent free-throw shooter, and then he missed two free throws. He carried that with him after that game.”

But then — almost as a testament to just how up-and-down Oklahoma's season had been — the Sooners ended their season by overcoming a 20-point deficit on the road to defeat TCU, 78-76, on March 7. Redshirt junior guard Austin Reaves scored 41 points, including a go-ahead jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining, which sealed an OU win, and likely an NCAA Tournament berth.

In the minutes leading up to Sooners’ wild comeback, Doolittle once again took off his facemask. However, this time it wasn’t due to frustration, but rather concentration.

“He took the mask off and thought ‘Injury be damned, we have to have this one, we need this one,” Dwayne said. “With Austin (Reaves) and Brady (Manek’s) heroics, he was thinking ‘I’ll deal with this broken nose later, my team needs me.”

Seconds after Reaves’ game-winning shot, Doolittle — in complete emotional contrast to how he appeared in the game prior — raised his arms in victorious praise before sprinting to bear-hug Reaves on the other side of the court. 

In that moment, the Sooners looked more than ready to dance. Oklahoma, eyeing its best regular-season finish since 2016, had secured a third seed in the Big 12 tournament and was a lock for the NCAA tournament per ESPN’s Joe Lundari.

Yet, that’s where Oklahoma’s season ended. The team that arguably saved its best performances for just before the postseason began doesn’t get the chance to go out with a Cinderella-esque ending. Instead, for reasons beyond their control, the Sooners’ 2019-20 campaign ended the same as every other teams’ did — too early.

In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has caused an early end, or at least postponement, to a multitude of sporting events across the country. From high school athletics to pro leagues, COVID-19 has undoubtedly made a lasting impact on the sports world.

When Dwayne realized his son wouldn’t get the chance to end his collegiate career with at least one Big 12 tournament or NCAA tournament win, he tried to make light of the news.

“Our joke over the past three years has been ‘What happens on the second day of the Big 12 tournament?’” Dwayne said. “So, we were in high anticipation of (watching Doolittle) play on the second day, but now we still have no idea what happens on the second of the Big 12 tournament. 

“And before we even get home, the (NCAA) tournament’s gone … But, that’s emblematic of where (Doolittle has) gone through. He’s come from the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. He’ll rise again. He’s shown that he’s resilient, that he’ll fight through and make the best out of it. He’s reflecting now, of course, but he knows he left it all on the court for the university … He’s Sooner born, Sooner bred.”

The way in which the coronavirus has spread across the globe is unlike anything Dwyane has seen in his lifetime — and he’s not alone. Many believe that, due to the situation’s unparalleled and still-developing nature, it’s unfair that so many collegiate seniors have been forced to call it a career.

"I would like to see us look seriously at providing an additional year of eligibility for student athletes who have lost the opportunity to compete,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said in a media teleconference on March 12. 

“Certainly that starts with the student athletes in their final year of eligibility. There’s not another way to get that back. You know, I don’t know how many student athletes would come back and compete if they had an additional year of eligibility, you know that’s all speculative, but it’s certainly something we’re going to continue to discuss."

But whether Doolittle gets his senior eligibility back or not, both Dwayne and Cowherd think his career is far from over

“Here’s the thing about Kristian, I am rarely ever surprised by what he accomplishes,” Cowherd said. “He has a unique ability and way about him to be able to try to surprise people. When he is taken for granted at times, he pops up and reminds people ‘Hey, I’m still here’... 

“It hasn't always gone exactly as scripted for him, but I think he’s tougher and a better man because of all of it."

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