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Sweet Reward: Oklahoma's Defensive Improvement Results In Sweet 16 Berth

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -

Before the season began, Oklahoma knew it needed to be better on defense. They talked about it and they worked on it. And worked on it. And worked on it some more.

They worked so hard on the defensive end of the court in the preseason that when the season finally began, the Sooners looked nothing like the offensive juggernaut that averaged nearly 82 points per game last year. The offense came around, but the Sooners didn't need to score 82 points per game anymore.

Now, it's clear all that work the Sooners put in back in October and November has paid off. The Sooners are back in the Sweet 16, thanks to a 72-66 win over Dayton on Sunday in Columbus.

The Sooners are among the final 16 teams for the first time since 2009, and it's because of their defense—and only because of their defense—they're heading to Syracuse to take on No. 7 seed Michigan State on Friday night.

You see, the Sooners found themselves down, 56-49 with 10:23 to play. They looked hapless on offense and the Flyers were hitting everything they threw toward the rim. Then the Sooners seemed to remember those practices back in October; seemed to remember all the work they put in to resemble a wall more than a sieve.

Oklahoma locked in and turned up the heat. Dayton didn't score for nine minutes; didn't hit a field goal for nearly 11. The Sooners forced five turnovers, two of which resulted in fastbreak layups, the second giving OU a 57-56 lead on a bucket from Buddy Hield.

It was suffocating pressure and it was all completely necessary, as the Sooners scored just 13 points over the same nine minute span, resulting in a 62-56 lead with 1:30 to play.

While Isaiah Cousins' 3-pointer with 3:08 to go proved to be the dagger for the Sooners against Albany on Friday night, it was fittingly a defensive stop that effectively sealed the deal for Oklahoma on Sunday, and it came from the Big 12 Player of the Year.

Hield struggled on offense once again, but as has been the case in the past few weeks, he impacted the game in other ways, dishing out five assists to no turnovers, and coming up with a huge defensive stop.

Dayton's Darrell Davis picked the pocket of Jordan Woodard with 1:08 to play and appeared to be heading in for a layup that would have cut the OU lead to just two points. But Hield was back and in position and as Davis attempted to sidestep him, Hield went up and stuffed the shot. It was an incredible play and saved the Sooners' season. Woodard grabbed the ball and proceeded to close the game out at the free throw line for the Sooners.

Hield finished with 15 points and Woodard led the team with 16, going 9-for-10 at the free throw line. Frank Booker was huge off the bench, scoring 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. For much of the game, Booker was the Sooners' best player and Oklahoma would not have won without his contributions on both ends of the floor.

TaShawn Thomas and Isaiah Cousins each had nine, while Ryan Spangler had 12 rebounds.

Oklahoma looked like it was on its way to an easy victory as the Sooners hit seven of their first nine 3-pointers and grabbed a 29-17 lead 12 minutes into the first half. But the occasional problems that had plagued the Sooners all year reared their ugly heads once again, as turnovers and a six and a half minute scoring drought allowed the Flyers to rattle off a 15-0 run to take the lead and get the partisan Dayton crowd in Columbus roaring.

The Sooners looked dead in the water as the Flyers began raining 3-pointers of their own, grabbing a 49-40 lead and the 56-49 lead on two Kendall Pollard free throws.

That's when the Sooners remembered all the work they put in to be able to rely on their defense when the offense wasn't flowing. That's when Oklahoma remembered it didn't matter if their shots weren't falling every time if Dayton's weren't falling at all.

Becoming a good defensive team wasn't easy. It took time and effort. But the reward for all that hard work is being one of the last 16 teams playing this year. You could call that reward especially sweet.

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