MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

OU

March 20, 2013

OU needs to stay focused to avoid early Big Dance exit

NORMAN – There are few guarantees in the NCAA Tournament. If you’re playing for a No. 10 seed or higher, winning requires playing nearly flawless in the final few possessions.

Oklahoma knows this all too well. The reason it isn’t a higher seed is its late-season struggles holding onto second-half leads and winning those tight games.

“We need to continue a lot of the good things we’ve been doing. We played a lot of good minutes; we just haven’t finished a couple ball games we needed to,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “Late-game situations are probably the biggest concern, taking care of the ball, getting it to where it needs to go, getting some stops defensively. All the things that teams need to do better to win ballgames.”

Look at OU’s last four losses and all them came down to getting beat in the final minutes.

The run didn’t seem significant when it started. OU let a six-point lead slip away with less than seven minutes left in regulation at Oklahoma State Feb. 16. The Sooners eventually lost the game in overtime. Figure the five last minutes of regulation and overtime, and they were outscored 27-16 over the final 11 minutes.

The issue leaped to the forefront in the epic meltdown in the loss to Texas Feb. 27. When a 22-point lead evaporated in a little over seven minutes, there are obvious problems.

The stunning loss at TCU to end the regular season saw OU rally from a 25-point halftime deficit. Still, OU was only down three with four minutes to go. It lost by four.

The early exit in the Big 12 tournament last Thursday came after OU squandered a 12-point lead with less than eight minutes.

“We missed a lot of shots in those games when we were up and that bothers us,” OU point guard Sam Grooms said. “But, of course, you have to stop somebody. We allowed to keep scoring when we’re not scoring. When that happens, you’re never gonna win.”

Struggling on one end means the game will at least become stagnant. Burning the miscue candle at both ends is what cost OU in all those games.

The Sooners (20-11) face seventh-seeded San Diego State (22-10) in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region’s second round at 8:20 p.m., Friday. The winner is going to be the one that handles the late-game pressure best.

OU practiced those kinds of situations over and over all season. They’ve been emphasized even more since it was ousted from the Big 12 tournament.

Only so much can be done on a practice court.

“It comes down to experience and playing a lot of basketball over the years,” forward Romero Osby said. “The only way to get better in those situations is to come through in the moment – in the game. We have to learn from the mistakes and get better.

OU has two more practices before it faces the Aztecs. The team that comes through in the clutch will advance. The other goes home.

“There are no more second chances,” Kruger said. “You get into a late-game situation, you have to finish it.”

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