Following the Sooners’ 63-59 loss to No. 6 Kansas on Saturday, head coach Lon Kruger said his team achieved “a new standard of competitiveness.”
“You guys feel it now,” Kruger said in his postgame locker room speech. “You feel what you gotta do in these next 14 games.”
Oklahoma played with more energy than was shown previously — forcing a season-high 10 steals — despite missing second-leading scorer Brady Manek and sophomore forward Jalen Hill due to COVID-19 protocols. Competitiveness was key for OU’s shorthanded roster.
The Sooners' close loss to the Jayhawks, which followed their collapse against No. 2 Baylor, placed them in a must-win scenario against TCU on Saturday in Norman. They answered Kruger’s postgame message from Kansas with perhaps their best performance of the season.
OU (7-4, 3-3 Big 12) defeated TCU (9-5, 2-4), 82-46, behind sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon’s 22 points — his career-high in a conference game. The Sooners’ 36-point win was the team’s largest margin of victory in conference since 2015, when they beat Texas Tech by 45.
“I think that was the first time we understood how hard you have to work for each possession for 40 minutes,” Kruger said about the Kansas loss being a turning point in the season. “After the Kansas game — not feeling good about the result — but I think we felt good about what we learned from that ball game.”
One improvement from the Sooners’ increased effort on each possession was their defensive play. OU forced 32 turnovers in its last two games combined — the most in any two-game stretch all season. The defense was the catalyst in the game against Kansas, and it held TCU to its lowest point total all season on Tuesday. The Horned Frogs scored 78 against OU on Dec. 6.
Oklahoma also had repeated struggles defending 3-point shots. Baylor, Xavier and West Virginia each made at least 10 3-pointers and scored 70 points or more against OU, as did TCU in its December meeting with the Sooners. But in the past two games, Kansas and TCU shot 30 and 21.1 percent from 3, respectively, against Oklahoma.
“I feel (really) good that we are locked in as a team on defense,” senior guard Alondes Williams said. “Because at first we were struggling, everybody was shooting 3s on us, but now (we’re) all locked in.”
Against TCU, OU corrected its deficiencies and played a near-perfect game. The Sooners have struggled with extending leads and scoring points in key situations. But when OU took a 12-point lead into halftime, it didn’t let up. The Sooners expanded their advantage to over 37 points with 32 seconds to go in the second half on walk-on Keller Casey’s layup.
“Really pleased to come out at halftime and widen the lead,” Kruger said. “We haven’t always done that, and this group, I thought, did a good job tonight of being focused out of halftime, and going out, and being intent on trying to widen that 12-point lead.”
Adding to the near-flawless game, OU’s offense also had 20 assists, just one shy of its season-high 21 against UTSA in its season-opener. Reaves had six and Harmon added four on the night.
“We do that, we’re gonna win a lot of games,” Harmon said. “Ever since I’ve been playing AAU we always say (if) we can get at least 20 team assists, then you’re up there (in points) and you’re usually winning by a lot.”
With Manek and Hill missing their second game in a row, Harmon has taken on a larger role offensively despite being third on the team at just under 11 points per game going into the contest. Harmon took 24 shots in his past two games, scoring 31 combined points.
Harmon also finished the TCU game 4-of-7 from the 3-point line — the most he’s made all season. The Denton, Texas, native even played power forward some on Tuesday with junior Elijah Harkless in foul trouble.
“I felt great,” Harmon said. “Once those two mid-ranges went down, I kind of got loose and the rim was like (the size) of the Pacific Ocean.”
The Sooners’ next opponent, Oklahoma State (9-3, 3-3), is coming off an upset win over Kansas on Tuesday night. OU will need its improved facets to beat projected top-5 pick Cade Cunningham’s squad.
“We know what the stakes hold,” Harmon said about the upcoming Bedlam. “We know what the weight holds in that game. Everybody knows that.
“It’s gonna be a big one.”