Sooners' strong starts, flat finishes not a good sign at this stage of season

USA TODAY Sports

Finishing games is an area of some concern for the Oklahoma men's basketball team as the best teams get set for the all-important second season, better known as March Madness.

Wednesday night's shocking defeat to Red River rival Texas, in a game that was all but decided with just under eight minutes to go and Oklahoma up by over 20 points, is not a good sign for a team that is hopeful, but not yet assured, of landing a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

The Sooners rode the sizzling stroke of senior long-range artist Steven Pledger to a 43-28 halftime lead and widened their lead to a 22-point margin in the second stanza with just over seven minute remaining in the game. Pledger scored nine of his 18 points in the game, all on three-pointers, in the first half as Oklahoma shot 70 percent as a team from the field, making 17 of its 24 field-goal attempts.

A'Math M'Baye's dunk, on an assist from Sam Grooms, with 7:54.left in the game put OU up by 22 points at 67-45, and it appeared the Sooners were well on their way to running their conference win total to double digits with their 10th win of the season and their fourth road victory in the league. After slamming home the dunk, M'Baye taunted the crowd with a celebratory fingers-down "Hook'em Horns" sign as he strode up court. He might as well have poured gasoline on a smoldering bonfire. From that point, the bottom fell completely out for Oklahoma.

Almost half of the crowd of 10,000 had departed the Frank Irwin Center, conceding defeat, as Texas outscored the Sooners 32-10 over the final eight minutes. The Longhorns' Myck Kabongo, arguably Texas' best player, took charge down the stretch, scoring 14 of Texas' final 32 points in regulation.

Despite shooting under 20 percent in the final eight minutes, the Sooners still had a good opportunity to close out the game, owning a four-point leadwith nine seconds to go, when Pledger committed the cardinal sin of fouling a jump shooter on a three-point try. Texas' Sheldon McClellan, who made all 13 of his free-throw attempts in the game, stepped up and promptly sank all three of his free throws to narrow the OU lead to a single point with under 10 seconds to go.

Romero Osby, OU's leading scorer on the year and high-point man for the game with a team high 31 points, was fouled on the Sooners' ensuing possession, but made only one of two free throws, giving the Sooners a two-point lead with only six seconds left on the clock in regulation. Kabongo got off a desperation shot at the buzzer that found it way into the hoop without ever touching the rim, sending the game into an extra session.

The overtime period proved to be all Texas from the opening tip, giving the Sooners a humbling lesson and a lot to think about as they head home to face a tough opponent in Iowa State on Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center.

If for some reason the Sooners are unable to rebound from this horrifying defeat in its final three games and it costs them an NCAA Tournament bid, they won't have to look back too far to pinpoint where it all went wrong.

This is the third time in the past four games in which the Sooners have allowed their opponents to make big second-half comebacks in games in which OU held double-digit second-half leads. Two of those contests (against Oklahoma State a little over a week ago in Stillwater and on Wednesday night in Austin) resulted in overtime losses. And last Saturday, coach Lon Kruger's squad let a 26-point halftime lead over Baylor almost get down to single digits before regaining control and holding off a strong Bears' second-half rally. Behind Sam Grooms' career-high 23 points and 15 of 17 from the free-throw stripe, OU reasserted its authority late in posting a 90-76 win at Lloyd Noble Center.

Faced with a similar scenario against Texas Wednesday night, the Sooners couldn't get the stops they needed down the stretch and squandered too many scoring opportunities, leaving the door open for the Longhorns to get back into and, ultimately, take control of the game. The result was a humbling and embarrassing loss in a game that the Sooners easily could and SHOULD have won...no questions asked.

"We played really good basketball for 32 minutes of the game, then everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong" Kruger said. The problem, of course, is: To close out opponents, you have to play and exert your will for all 40 minutes.

This one "is going to hurt for a while," the Sooners' head coach admitted. "We have to get through it and regroup. It was a big game, but there is another big ball game three days from today."

With an NCAA Tournament bid at stake, as well as an automatic bye in the upcoming Big 12 Championship tourney, OU cannot afford to dwell on the Texas loss, despite how much it hurts. "We have got to learn from it and try to replicate the first 32 minutes of the game (over the full 40 minutes)," Kruger said.

The Sooners have won five games this season by six points or less, and lost three by the same amount. At this time of the season, the games only get bigger going forward. Teams that want to play on deep into March have to be able to start fast, protect the ball, defend well and finish strong, which includes making clutch free throws when the game is on the line. Of these four keys to winning, the Oklahoma men have shown they have the wherewithal to get on the board early and often, but they have not been as good, particularly of late, at maintaining their composure in close games late and playing smart, as well as hard, and as a team for the full 40 minutes of every game.

In many ways, the overtime loss at Texas is far worse, and certainly more emotionally detrimental, than the 19-point blowout the Sooners suffered a month ago at Iowa State. And if they don't get it behind them quickly, the carryover effect could lead to a similar result in the Sooners' rematch with the Cyclones in Norman on Saturday.

After losing to Texas, OU can ill afford to lose at home to Iowa State, even if it is a 19-win Cyclone team that is currently tied with the Sooners (both with 9-6 league records) for fourth place in the Big 12 standings. OU is now looking at a three-game season. Another loss may not be fatal, but it certainly would be damaging to the Sooners NCAA Tournament prospects, especially given the fact Oklahoma's final two games, at home vs. West Virginia and at TCU, have little, if any upside associated with them.

Follow Big 12 basketball all the way through the postseason at Big12Sports.com

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