INDIANAPOLIS — In March, the stars shine the brightest.
Sometimes, a trio of stars come together to shine on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Such was the case for Austin Reaves, Brady Manek and Elijah Harkless, as they dazzled in the opening round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament to power his shorthanded No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners past the 9-seeded Missouri Tigers 72-68 inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN.
“Couldn't be happier for the guys. Just a big-time battle, Missouri's good, made some big plays late, different guys stepped up at different times,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said after the game in his video press conference. “Just, again, just couldn't be happier. It's been a grind, all the games are close all year long, and the guys I think benefited from that, Big-12 play.”
Oklahoma’s triumvirate combined to account for 58 of the squad’s 72 points, similar to their outing against the Kansas Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament.
Despite falling short in Kansas City, their efforts proved to be good enough in Indianapolis, setting up a matchup with the No. 1-overall seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs on Monday.
In true form to their season however, the Sooners kept fans on the edge of their seats all the way to the finish.
Coming out of the under-four minute media timeout, Oklahoma extended their lead to eight points on the back of a 7-2 run, and looked to be coasting across the finish line.
But with their season on the line, Dru Smith hit a pair of 3’s in the final minute to pull the Tigers within three points.
Given the ball with 30 seconds on the clock, Reaves turned the ball over without getting up a shot to give Missouri one last chance to tie the game.
After a hectic and sloppy possession, Harkless fouled Drew Buggs, sending him to the line to shoot a pair.
“Teams practice that, of course, a lot, and we do,” Kruger said. “Regardless of what happens on the free throws, anytime the clock gets under six -- it's one thing to talk about it -- Jalen Hill did that once in a game earlier this year and real nice heads-up play and Elijah made a very good heads-up play right there.”
Buggs sunk the first free throw, but OU was able to box out and secure the rebound off the second shot, icing the game and punching their ticket into the second round.
Much like when Oklahoma struggled at the end of the regular season, Reaves stressed that the attitude down the stretch was the same, but OU simply able to do enough to come out on top.
“It's really about the same. You attack all games the same way, you attack late game the same way. You really got to be composed,” he said. “Late in the year we dropped some of those games. Got to give credit to the other team when they made better plays down the stretch. But I feel like it was similar and we just came out on the better end of the stick this time.”
Missing sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon, who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival to the tournament bubble on Monday, Kruger knew guys would have to step up and play that much better to allow his team to advance.
Along with the offensive performances, Hill, Victor Iwuakor and Kur Kuath also slotted in and gave a strong performance on the boards, battling Missouri big Jeremiah Tilmon to a virtual stale mate. Oklahoma only lost the rebounding battle 36-32.
"They all played hard and played well. Tilmon's a big guy in there. He's a hard matchup, especially when you got those guys on the perimeter that shoot it so well," Kruger said. "So Kur came in and spelled Brady and did a really good job. Victor gave us some good minutes and again Jalen and Alondes I thought had a lot of good plays during the ball game.
"So you need that when you're a guy down, other guys have to step up, and on the year this group's done that pretty well."
Despite the late turnover, Reaves was great for a large stretch of the contest. Starting out 3-3 from the field, Reaves finished shooting 6-of-16 for 23 points, including 10-of-12 performance from the free throw line. The senior guard added four rebounds and six assists, running the show for 38 of the game’s 40 minutes.
“Austin battled all night. When you're the guy that the ball's in your hands late, you can't be shy, you can't be timid, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Kruger said. “But our guys know that he's going to have the ball late and I thought other guys stepped in and made plays to get to us that point where Austin then made some plays to get to the free-throw line, quite frankly, and that was a big part of creating a little bit of a spread there late.”
Manek finished in double figures for the fourth time in March alone, adding 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting. The senior really proved to be most valuable from deep, as he sunk 5-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc, also tacking on three rebounds.
With the forward again in rhythm, Reaves said the offense becomes much simpler to run.
“It's easy. Get (Manek) the ball, and he's going to do the rest,” Reaves said. “For Brady to make shots like that it's super big. He's been doing it for a long time now, four years in a row that he's, I mean, been one of the best four-man shooters if not all of basketball, one through five. And it's special just to see it, to be a part of it and I really just want the best for him.”
No shot was bigger for Manek than when he hit a 3 with 3:38 left in the game to put Oklahoma up by four, allowing them to put the pressure on the Tigers the rest of the way by playing up by two possessions.
“It was huge. It was really big,” Kruger said. “Making those threes early and then that one late to take it to four, I think it was, it was a huge shot.”
In his first tournament game, Harkless tacked on a double-double, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“He's a big-time player. That's why he's here, that's why the coaches wanted him here,” Reaves said of Harkless. “He did everything that he usually does and then produced really well on the offensive end, which we know he's capable of. We have seen it for a year now, a little over, just his capability of being an all-around player.
“He stepped up on a big stage and made really, really good plays. I mean, if you watch the game you could tell he was one of the best players on the floor tonight.”
Oklahoma will now meet No. 1 Gonzaga at 1:40 p.m. central time on Monday inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.