OU coach Lon Kruger was astonished by his team’s rough start.
Scoring just 15 points in the first half and making six field goals, Oklahoma had its lowest scoring half of the season and looked out of sync. Senior guard Austin Reaves scored three points on two attempts despite the Jayhawks being without 6-foot-11, 265-pound forward David McCormack — recently named the Big 12’s Most Improved Player — due to COVID-19 protocols.
The No. 25 Sooners (15-10, 9-8 Big 12) lost to No. 11 Kansas (20-8, 12-6), 69-62, in the Big 12 Championship tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night in Kansas City, ending their conference tournament run. Despite nearly coming back from a 23-point deficit, OU’s second half push wasn’t enough to overcome its poor first period. Oklahoma has dropped five of its last six games heading into the NCAA Tournament, losing by an average of 4.8 points per game.
“I think that’s our problem now,” senior forward Brady Manek said. “Just not putting whole games together. … We’ve got to play all 40 minutes and and we’ve got to play our hardest, and I didn’t think we did that the first half.”
Despite ranking 17th in Division I averaging just 10.8 turnovers per game on offense, OU had 13 turnovers in the first half. With no sight of the team that won four games against top-10 ranked opponents in January, Kruger’s halftime message was simple.
“The message was ‘let’s go play like you’ve played all year,’ basically,” Kruger said. “That first half was a shock to everyone. We haven’t had a half like that on the year and picked a bad time to do it.”
OU’s second half was a different story. The Sooners outscored Kansas, 47-34, and shot 58.6 percent from the field and over 66 percent from 3-point range. Reaves scored 16 of his 19 points in the half, with Manek and junior guard Elijah Harkless adding 12 and 11, respectively, in the period. Manek finished the game with 19 points and Harkless had 14.
Oklahoma pulled within three points on a 3-pointer by Manek with less than eight minutes remaining, but the Jayhawks responded with a 9-4 run. Each of Kansas’ nine points during the run were on consecutive 3-pointers by guard Ochai Agbaji, who finished the game with 26 points.
“You just get pissed off after that first half and come out ready to play,” Manek said. “That’s really what we did. We were mad. We didn’t like where the game was going. We were embarrassed and we really just came out wanting to make a statement there, and I think we did. (If) we play well that first half, we win that game.”
After a rough stretch, Oklahoma hopes to get back to its former play in the NCAA Tournament. OU’s second half provided a better feeling than the Sooners had during halftime when they were down 35-15, but ultimately failed to bolster their resume before Selection Sunday on March 14.
“Hoping we’re learning from these,” Manek said about his team’s recent losses. “You know, just tough games. … We had multiple opportunities every single time, so I hope we’re learning. Can’t really learn this late in the season. You’ve just got to come ready to play.
“But (we’ve) just got to fight back and push hard the last however many games we get.”