INDIANAPOLIS — To upset the No. 1 team in the country, the Oklahoma Sooners had to be almost perfect.
On Monday, they fell short of that bar, succumbing to the Gonzaga Bulldogs 87-71 inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The proceedings weren’t a given however, as the Sooners stormed out of the gate.
Opening the game on a 12-4 run, Austin Reaves played a nearly perfect first 10 minutes. The senior guard hit his first four attempts from the field, and Umoja Gibson nailed his first two 3-pointers to help the Sooners cling to the lead for more than seven minutes early on.
OU head coach Lon Kruger heaped praised on the senior after the game, saying his performance against the ‘Zags was indicative of his entire season.
“He was fantastic, yeah. He just competes like crazy and keeps going downhill and keeps working at it,” Kruger said. “He had that type of year. Just terrific production and competed like crazy.”
Heading into the contest, Kruger had stressed the need to work possessions deep into the shot clock while still getting good shots, as the Sooners wouldn’t be able to hang around in a high-scoring affair.
The Oklahoma players actually executed Kruger’s plans, but their hot shooting start faded and the Bulldogs began to assert themselves.
“We started out shooting the ball well and getting good looks and making shots, and it's kind of back and forth there through the first 10, 12 minutes, then they got away from us a little bit,” Kruger said.
Gonzaga retook the lead on a Corey Kispert layup with 10:45 left in the half, which helped spur the first of two first-half runs which saw the Bulldogs distance themselves. On the ensuing possession, Reaves was called for a charge under the basket on the left block, sending him to the bench, where he would have to watch his team on the receiving end of a 6-0 run.
Sensing blood in the water, the Bulldog defense started to force mistakes.
Turning OU over nine times in the first half, the nation’s only undefeated team cashed the mistakes in for nine points on the other end, and took control of the game with a 12-2 run at the end of the half.
“Any time that happens, you look back, and we turned it over nine times I think in the first half. You just can't afford to do that,” Kruger said. “I think their pressure hurt us a little bit in terms of tempo and rhythm, three-quarter court. But yeah, just got to take a little better care of the ball than we did.”
Gonzaga’s 12-point lead proved insurmountable for the shorthanded Sooners, who played their second straight game without guard De'Vion Harmon. Harmon tested positive for COVID-19 a week ago.
“They just keep the pressure on you, they keep coming at you, and if you turn it over carelessly or if you take a shot that leads into transition for them, they make you pay for it,” Kruger said. “That happened a couple times, and again, we ended up fighting from behind the last 20 minutes.”
But Oklahoma fought to the very end.
With under three minutes left, OU cut the Bulldog lead to single digits on two different occasions, but the Sooners were unable to shrink the deficit below nine.
“Yeah, this group is like that, all year long,” Kruger said. “Again, most all the games were tight, as you know, in Big 12 play, but when we did get down at times during the season, Big 12 year, they fought back, got back in the ballgames, had good runs. Even today, I thought there midway in the second half, last five minutes, I thought they really scrapped to make it a ball game, and they've done that all year. So, not surprised by that out of this group.”
Mark Few’s Bulldogs were able to lean on their size advantage down low to help close out Oklahoma in the second half.
The Sooners had no answer for Drew Timme, who logged a massive double-double with 30 points and 13 rebounds, also converting 12-of-14 free throws.
Alongside Timme, three other Bulldogs finished scoring double figures.
Jalen Suggs added 16 points, three rebounds and three assists. Kispert and Andrew Nembhard rounded the offensive display with 16 and 12, respectively.
Despite the offensive explosion from Gonzaga, Reaves said there were a number of things that helped out the ‘Zags that fell squarely on Oklahoma’s shoulders.
“We gave up a number of second-chance opportunities, gave up a number of uncontested 3s. If we cut that down, get one of those offensive rebounds or defensive rebounds and then start the break, the whole game can change,” he said. “I know they got two in a row when it was a 10-point game, and then if we get those and go make a bucket, it could change the game, and it's a whole different game at that point.
“But we didn't, so it is what it is.”
Reaves’ attempt to will OU to victory was neutered early in the second half as well. Picking up his third personal foul with 17:11 left in the game, the First Team All-Big 12 selection seemed hesitant to attack the basket knowing his team was without Harmon, the team's second-leading scorer and secondary ball handler.
“You've got it in the back of your head, but you still want to play the basketball game that coach wants and that you want to do,” Reaves said. “You don't really change to kind of counter that. You might do something just a little bit different, but you stay as aggressive as you was the first quarter of the game, the second quarter of the game.”
Still, Reaves finished with 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting, two rebounds and two assists, a great outing in what could be his final appearance in a Sooner uniform.
Elijah Harkless and Brady Manek were unable to reprise their performance from OU’s opening round to support Reaves. That duo combined for 10 points, shooting just 4-of-14 from the field.
Alondes Williams and Jalen Hill were the only other Sooners to score in double figures, adding 14 points and 11 points to the final total.
Gonzaga’s quest for an undefeated season rolls on into the Sweet Sixteen, and the Sooners will head back to Norman after finishing 16-11 on the year.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Reaves said. “We did a lot of special things this year, and you know, we just got beat today.”