De’Vion Harmon had the biggest smile on his face.
The sophomore guard was delighted, although he tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Indianapolis on Monday night. He was unavailable for Oklahoma’s (16-10, 9-8 Big 12) game against Missouri (16-10, 8-8 SEC) on Saturday and was also ruled out through at least the second round by OU coach Lon Kruger on Tuesday.
But after the Sooners ended the Tigers’ season, OU instantly took to the locker room to FaceTime Harmon. Harmon answered the call as he jumped around his isolated hotel room and screamed at his teammates while spraying water on his face and pounding his chest moments after the win.
“For D, bro, that’s for you,” senior forward Kur Kuath yelled to Harmon during the FaceTime call. Harmon yelled “turn me up” in response.
Having lost last season’s tournament to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harmon was excited to see his teammates get a win, even as he missed out on the biggest stage of his career. Unless OU wins on Monday against No. 1 seed Gonzaga, Harmon will have missed two March Madness appearances through his first two years of college.
“There’s nothing better in sports than a spontaneous locker room celebration,” Kruger said. “You can’t practice them, you can’t express how they feel, the look of satisfaction on the players’ faces. ... Always glad that the players can experience as many of those as possible.”
The No. 8 seeded Sooners defeated No. 9 seeded Missouri, 72-68, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night, without their second-leading scorer, Harmon. Oklahoma got back on track with a momentum-building victory after losing five of its previous six games behind senior guard Austin Reaves and senior forward Brady Manek, who scored 23 and 19 points, respectively. Junior guard Elijah Harkless added 17 points and 10 rebounds.
From Manek’s big 3-pointer that put Oklahoma up four points with 3:22 remaining in the second half, to Reaves’ clutch 9-for-9 free-throw shooting in the second half, the only players on OU’s roster who’d previously played an NCAA Tournament game stepped up.
The Sooners scored on seven of their last eight possessions, closing out the game with poise, unlike during their rough stretch before postseason play. Against Kansas in its last game during the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals, Oklahoma shot 2-of-7 as a team during the last five minutes of its 69-62 loss to the Jayhawks.
“Closing the game like that is major,” Reaves said. “You win a lot of those games when you do the things that we did down the stretch. Coach put us in really good positions to be successful and everybody just really came together and made good plays down the stretch.”
Manek’s recent play has added another level to the Sooners’ offense. After he came down with an injury against Baylor on Jan. 6 and tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7, Manek didn’t look like the first forward in Big 12 history with 200 career 3-pointers.
Now, Manek has scored in double digits in four of his last five games, shooting 47 percent from 3-point range.
“It's easy,” Reaves said. “Get (Manek) the ball, and he's going to do the rest. … For Brady to make shots like that, it's super big. He's been doing it for a long time now, four years in a row that he's been one of the best (power forward) shooters, if not in all of basketball one through five. And it's special just to see it, to be a part of it and I really just want the best for him.”
After Missouri guard Dru Smith hit back-to-back 3s to cut OU’s lead to 70-67, the Tigers got the ball back with 10 seconds left and the Sooners seemed to have returned to their past struggles down the stretch in close games.
Chaos ensuing, Oklahoma stayed poised. Up by three points, Harkless intentionally fouled Tiger guard Drew Buggs with two seconds left. The heads-up play sent Buggs to the free-throw line instead of giving Missouri a chance to tie with a 3-pointer.
Kruger said the foul was designed in the huddle during the previous timeout and something the team works on in practice. Buggs made the first free-throw before intentionally missing the second in hopes of an offensive rebound, but sophomore forward Jalen Hill grabbed it, essentially confirming the Sooners’ win.
“(I was) very pleased,” Kruger said of the team’s composure. “In a win or go home game you find out a little bit about yourself, and I thought our guys responded exactly like you would want to to give ourselves a chance to play another day… I thought our guys did an excellent job fighting that run off a couple times.”
Oklahoma now has a chance to defeat No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the second round on Monday. For the Sooners to pull off a masterful upset against the undefeated Bulldogs that boast two likely top 15 NBA Draft picks, they’ll need their senior leaders to stay composed without Harmon.
“Just being resilient and refusing to lose, honestly,” Reaves said was the key to victory. “You lose now, you go home, you think about all the things you could have done, should have done, and stuff like that. But now we get to stick around and play another game on Monday.”