On Saturday, the Oklahoma Sooners (15-7, 3-6) fell short of a comeback against a struggling and depleted West Virginia squad (10-12, 2-7), 79-71. This was a devastating loss for Lon Kruger’s team, which needs to win these kinds of games to keep its chances of an NCAA Tournament berth alive. The path that lies ahead of them is daunting, and there isn’t much reason for optimism.
Historically, the month of February hasn’t been too kind to the Sooners under Kruger. Just last season, Oklahoma went 1-7 during the second month on the calendar. The loss in Morgantown is an ominous sign that another abysmal stretch like the one in 2018 could rear its ugly head once again in 2019.
Brady Manek and Aaron Calixte led the way with 18 and 17 points, respectively, but one of the biggest takeaways from the poor performance against the Mountaineers was the day Christian James had. The senior went 1-10 from the field and 0-4 from deep. Sure, 8-8 at the free-throw line allowed him to score 10 points overall, but when the team clearly needed his veteran abilities to carry them over the hump, he disappeared. All game long, he was turning down open looks, probably because his confidence has been shot.
In the first half, the early tip had both the Sooners and the Mountaineers looking a little sleepy on offense coming out of the gates. Neither team could create much separation, but an early spark for Oklahoma was provided by Brady Manek. The sophomore forward, sporting a new buzz cut, scored the first seven points of the contest for his team, keeping pace with West Virginia. By the latter stages of the half, WVU intermittently applied its full court press technique to cause OU to speed up and play out of rhythm. It appeared to be a successful tactic for Bob Huggins’ group, because his guys finished the half on an 8-0 run. The Sooners trailed 33-26 at the break.
As has been the case in many Oklahoma games this season, the scoring picked up for both teams in the second half. Freshman Jamal Bieniemy scored his first bucket since going 6-6 in Stillwater two three games ago. Still, the Sooners struggled to close the gap from the field. Fortunately, the Mountaineers put OU on the line often down the stretch, allowing Oklahoma to chip away at the deficit with the clock stopped. Ultimately, losing the rebounding battle, 46-30 (18-7 in offensive rebounds), was the deciding factor, and it was completely inexcusable.
Up next, Oklahoma hosts Iowa State on February 4th for a marquee Monday night matchup. The Sooners have just crossed the halfway point through conference competition, going 3-6 through the front nine. Meanwhile, the Cyclones, led by Big 12 scoring leader Marial Shayok, look to be one of the better teams in the league once again after finishing in last place a year ago. ISU will be the clear favorite in this one, as these two teams are trending in opposite directions.
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