Oklahoma basketball: Sooners finish season with heads held high

Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi (11) loses the ball as he collides with Oklahoma Sooners guard Elijah Harkless (24) during the first half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi (11) loses the ball as he collides with Oklahoma Sooners guard Elijah Harkless (24) during the first half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports /

You are what your record says you are…or so they say. That may be true in general terms, but it is an acute misrepresentation of the 2020-21 Oklahoma basketball team.

The Sooners’ 2020-21 season came to a close on Monday after an 87-71 loss to Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament and who practically everybody outside of Waco, Texas, overwhelmingly believes is the best team in the country this season.

There were some college basketball writers and analysts who were saying as March Madness tipped off last week that Gonzaga’s second unit was probably good enough to rank as a top-25 team.

Nobody gave OU much of a chance to upset the undefeated and top-ranked Zags — after all, only one time in its 28 games this season has Gonzaga won by fewer than double digits — but it’s probably also fair to say that very few, if any, expected the Sooners to be as much of a challenge as they were to the team considered to be the Goliath of college basketball this season.

“He left it all out there, That’s what you want for each of your guys, and certainly he did that.” — OU head coach Lon Kruger on Austin Reaves’ performance against Gonzaga

The Sooners surprised the top-seeded Zags, racing out to a 12-4 advantage to start the game and holding a 21-19 lead after eight minutes, with Austin Reaves supplying 10 of the points. A little over a minute later, Gonzaga took a 23-21 lead and never looked back.

Oklahoma trailed by two when Reaves was charged with his second foul and went to the bench. The Sooners were able to stay close, keeping it at a one-possession game, 33-30 when he re-entered the game five minutes later. Gonzaga went on a 13-4 run, however, over the final five minutes of the first half to open up a 46-34 advantage.

The Zags widened their advantage to 19 points twice in the second half and threatened to blow the game wide open, but the Sooners weren’t having any part of it. OU continued to fight and claw right down to the very end.

The Sooner cut the margin down to nine points on two occasions late in the game, but seven free throws and a made three-pointer by the Zags, aided by two Oklahoma turnovers, closed out the game and the OU season.

Austin Reaves set the tone and example for the game that the other Sooners followed

Reaves finished the game as the team’s high scorer, as he has most of the season, with 27 points on 11 of 17 shooting in 34 minutes of action.. He set the tone for Oklahoma early, showing that he was going to be aggressive and take the fight right to the seemingly invincible Zags.

Reaves either scored or assisted on 16 of the Sooners’ first 21 points in the game.

“He was fantastic,” said head coach Lon Kruger in his postgame press conference. “He competes like crazy and keeps going downhill.”

“They just keep coming at you,” — Lon Kruger on No. 1 Gonzaga

It was a loss — and an NCAA Tournament loss, on top of it — which makes it a bit more disappointing than most because it means the end of the season, and for some their college careers. But Kruger and his Oklahoma players can take heart knowing that they gave it their best shot — and against almost insurmountable odds — and left it all out on the floor.

The Sooners played what a good number of fans will consider their best game of the season, and deservedly so, given the quality of the opponent and the fact they were without arguably their second best player (De’Vion Harmon, who missed the game because of COVID-19 protocols). Also considering that their third leading score, Brady Manek, did not score after scoring the first three points of the game.

Oklahoma actually won a tournament game — something 32 other tournament teams can’t say — and against a good Missouri team. Once the news about Harmon surfaced, there weren’t many folks who thought the Sooners could get by Missouri. Once they did, though, the prize awaiting them, sadly, was the opportunity go up against the nation’s top team in the second round.

No one wants to lose, but the way OU lost — with fight and dignity– is admirable

I guess if you have to lose, the best possible feeling in that scenario, is to play your hardest and be competitive against a team that no one else has come close to beating this season.

Trailing at halftime by 12 points, some teams might have accepted the writing on the wall, especially given that the opponent was Gonzaga, a team that was used to crippling its opponents in the first half and burying them in the second.

As sports columnist Jenni Carlson of The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman wrote:

"“The Sooners didn’t slay Goliath, but they didn’t run and hide either. (Austin) Reaves made sure of that.”"

Oklahoma finishes with a record of 16-11 in a season that saw the Sooners climb from completely off the radar to as high as No. 7 in the national rankings. From mid-January through mid-February, OU won eight of nine games, including  four wins over teams ranked in the top-10. But that same team ended the season losing six of its final eight games, including the season-ending loss to Gonzaga.

No one but the Sooners themselves thought they would beat Gonzaga, but that doesn’t mean the loss doesn’t hurt deeply, and it probably will for quite some time.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not how you start but how you finish that matters.” Let’s face it, the spectacular 30-stretch in January and February is the reason Oklahoma made its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance under Kruger and 33rd overall.

The Sooners’ journey down the homestretch to the finish line certainly didn’t work out the way they wanted, but the way they finished did matter. The heart and fight they showed in defeating Missouri and battling the Goliath of college basketball this season should not go unnoticed or underappreciated.

These guys gave everything they had in them in Monday’s season-ending loss. You can’t ask anything more. That reason alone is enough to call it a good, even successful, season.