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OU men's basketball: Virginia ends Oklahoma's NCAA Tournament, Sooners' future looks bright

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Jamal Bieniemy

Freshman guard Jamal Bieniemy runs with the ball in the game against Kansas March 5.

After advancing a step further than in the 2017-18 season, the Sooners had to pack their bags after falling to Virginia — the No. 2 team in the country — in Columbia, South Carolina, Sunday night.

One way to look at it is an abrupt goodbye to a senior class that’s stuck with the program through years of its ups and downs. A Final Four run their freshman year, an 11-win season their sophomore year, the “Trae Young Show” their junior year and, finally, a round of 32 exit their senior year.

Another way, the brighter way, to see the loss is as a minor setback for three players: junior forward Kristian Doolittle, sophomore forward Brady Manek and the lone freshman Jamal Bieniemy — the only three Sooners to score in the first half Sunday. The three will soon welcome Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves, JUCO transfer Kur Kuath, and a nationally acclaimed 2019 recruiting class that features three four-stars and the No. 37 player in the nation, per Rivals.com.

In Sunday’s loss, Manek kept the Sooners in the first half with 13 points, running from baseline to baseline in the final seconds to receive a pass from senior guard Christian James to get a last-second layup. James finished the half with no points, as did the rest of the seniors. James’ offense took a change in the second half after he scored 13 points to close out his OU career. So did Manek’s, as he didn’t score at all in the second half. Manek and Christian couldn’t get their scoring in sync.

It still seemed like a ball game to the Sooners after going into halftime with a single-digit deficit, but the Cavaliers ran away with it in the last 20 minutes. Virginia finished the game shooting 48 percent from the field, and had a 36-29 rebounding advantage over the Sooners. The No. 1-seeded Cavaliers weren’t going to allow a Sooner run.

The Sooners finish the season with a 13-2 out-of-conference record as they head back to Norman. Before January, the Sooners were 11-1, and made their way all the way to a No. 20 ranking in the nation. Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall called the Sooners a “second-weekend team” after the Shockers fell to OU, 80-48, back in December.

Things changed when Big 12 play came in January. The Sooners finished the season 7-11 in the conference. The three-month stretch included a five-game losing streak that started with the Sooners getting clobbered by 30 at home against Baylor Jan. 28 and another loss to Baylor Feb. 11. In order to stay in the NCAA Tournament conversation, the Sooners had to start winning with the season’s finish line in sight, and that’s exactly what they did. They won four of their last six games, a stretch that included an 81-68 win against then-No. 13 Kansas.

Looking back, the Sooners’ season can be considered a success after a 95-72 win against Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The team shot 57 percent from the field, and four Sooners were in double-digit scoring. It was the definitive performance of a senior class that’s saying goodbye to Sooner Nation.

Now, Oklahoma will look to the future — Manek, Doolittle, Bieniemy and a set new of faces — in hopes of returning to the Final Four soon.

 

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