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Archive for Saturday, March 10, 2007

Commentary: Sooners worn out after deflating loss to Jayhawks, long season

March 10, 2007

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— To the very end, he never stopped moving. Curling around screens, looking for open space, any sliver of freedom from which to hoist a shot.

It looked like slow-motion, though. And when the clock stopped, Michael Neal inevitably found himself slumped over, grabbing his shorts in the universal hoops sign of fatigue.

A stomach virus had taken its toll. That, and Kansas' relentless defensive pressure.

And the rigors of a long, hard season - which almost certainly ended Friday at the Ford Center.

An Oklahoma bunch that had been running on fumes sputtered to a halt in a 64-47 loss. Worn down in the second half, the Sooners were worn out by the final horn.

A few minutes later, Neal leaned back in a chair and sighed.

"I'm just really, really tired," he said.

Like his teammates, the OU guard held out hope for an NIT bid. But only a little. And when the call doesn't come, it won't be such a bad deal.

The Sooners don't have anything left.

During the first half, OU scrambled enough to stick close to a half-interested Jayhawks squad. But neither portion of a split crowd - at least half, and maybe more, wearing KU blue - overreacted. Visions of what happened the last time Kansas was in the building (Bucknell, 2005) were not dancing in anyone's head.

Everyone knew what was coming.

"We tried to fight, but they're a good team," Neal said.

"Better than us," Jeff Capel added. "Better than a lot of teams."

While we're at it, what does the halfway performance say about Kansas?

With the nation's deepest, most talented roster, the Jayhawks are worthy of a No. 1 seed, and capable of winning it all. Or, if they're lethargic like Friday morning, of losing to almost anyone. But the thing is, the Jayhawks can flip the switch. They're still playing, and they might play for a long while yet.

No one thought the Sooners would play beyond Friday. To borrow a phrase from a renowned orator, they were who we thought they were.

Turns out, they were who Capel thought they were, too. In a moment of candor, he said his first OU team maximized its potential.

Considering Capel's background - "what I know," he said, "is to win" - the admission must have come hard. But it wasn't a slam, or even a revelation.

Allow Neal to insist the Sooners were good: "We hit some shots, we get some stops, we can easily be looking at being in the (NCAA) Tournament, and stuff like that," he said.

Capel said OU "hit its ceiling." Which, for a collection of role players and spare parts, meant hitting a wall.

A mirage at midseason briefly prompted silly talk of an NCAA Tournament bid. But even in a four-game streak that included wins over Texas Tech and OSU, it was obvious the Sooners were straining for every inch of success, with no margin for error.

The loss to Kansas was OU's seventh in eight games - only Thursday's first-round grinder over Iowa State broke up the slide.

Unless the NIT selection committee deems otherwise, the Sooners' season is finished at 16-15. Just in time.

Unable to count on consistent scoring, OU counted all year on its defense and a commitment to playing hard. Friday's first half was a prime example.

In the second half, Kansas came out hot, and OU came out colder - a season-low 20 percent, with four field goals - and the Jayhawks ran away.

It was clear, as Capel later admitted, the Sooners were "deflated." A couple times in the final moments, KU players took the ball straight to the rim, unimpeded. "Looked like Moses had a staff and the sea parted right there," Capel said. "Disappointing."

And telling.

Because Neal insisted they never stopped trying to hit shots, to get stops. They just got slower, and slower, and finally stalled.

By the last TV timeout, with only a few minutes left, Capel had to exhort his guys to hurry to the bench.

"C'mon! C'mon! C'mon! Let's go! Let's go!" he yelled, clapping and nodding his head.

The players broke into a quick shuffle. It was what they had left.

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