Reserves shine as Sooners win opener
BY GUERIN EMIG World Sports Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2012
NORMAN — The season didn’t start too hot for the Oklahoma basketball team Sunday afternoon, so coach Lon Kruger went to his bench. That’s what sparked the Sooners’ 85-51 victory over Louisiana-Monroe.
That’s a relief around the program.
The last two years, if the first five to seven players in OU’s rotation struggled, the Sooners were more of less stuck with them.
Sunday, every starter but Romero Osby came out sluggishly. So Kruger called on Andrew Fitzgerald, Buddy Hield, Tyler Neal, Cameron Clark and Sam Grooms. The second group spurted.
And the Sooners were on their way to a 1-0 record.
“It feels good to be able to play as hard as we can possibly play, then come off the court and see somebody else go in there and there not be any layoff,” Osby said. “Just guys coming in and picking up where the guys that were in there earlier left off. It’s fun being able to do that.”
It wasn’t just that OU’s second five picked up where the starters left off Sunday. They were a big improvement.
Clark hit a 15-footer to give the Sooners a lead they wouldn’t relinquish with 12 minutes left in the first half. OU was on its heels until that point, Kruger said, and trailed the Sun Belt Conference Warhawks 11-10.
After Clark’s jumper, Fitzgerald followed in a miss to make it 14-11. The Sooners worked an inbound play to free Neal for an alley-oop dunk. Hield forced a turnover and finished at the other end. Fitzgerald scored another putback, then a layup.
That made it 22-12 with eight minutes left in the half.
Kruger began rotating the starters back in, this time to much better effect. Freshmen guards Isaiah Cousins and Je’lon Hornbeak settled in after a nervous start. So did forward Amath M’Baye, ,making his regular-season debut as a Sooner. Steven Pledger started making 3-pointers after a cold start. Osby played hard throughout.
By the time the game ended, Pledger had 15 points. M’Baye had 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Hornbeak had 10 points, five assists and five rebounds. Cousins had five assists.
Meantime, the bench kept contributing. Fitzgerald finished with 12 points and six rebounds. Hield and Neal closed with nine points apiece. Clark grabbed five boards. Grooms handed out five assists.
No wonder that when asked in postgame if he had established a set rotation, Kruger said: “No, not at all. It’ll be a continuous experiment to see who’s playing their minutes well and who’s getting the job done... I’m not set on anything by any means. The players will determine that and dictate that as we get deeper into non-conference and closer to conference play.”
That’s fine with the Sooners, a team winning the numbers game for the first time in three years.
“This year we’ve got a lot more depth,” Osby said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are really quick with the ball and off the ball. We’ve still got the returning guys that are able to do some things, too. The mixture of that has really given us a boost.
“Coach is doing a good job of keeping us fresh. He always tells us, ‘Don’t hold anything back. We can get somebody else in for you. Just play as hard as you possibly can in those minutes you’re playing.’
“That’s one thing we’ve been trying to focus on. I think we’ve got the depth to do that.”
Oklahoma's Buddy Hield heads downcourt as Louisiana Monroe's Amos Olatayo (left) and Millaun Brown give chase during Sunday's game in Norman. Garett Fisbeck/The Oklahoman