The free throw is arguably the easiest shot in all of basketball. You don't have to worry about defenders and you get to take your time to make a 15-foot shot.
In order to play deep into March, you have to make your free throws, and two Oklahoma misses opened the door for North Dakota State to force overtime, where little-used guard Carlin Dupree put the Bison ahead for good in an 80-75 upset of the Sooners.
Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard each missed a free throw in the final 40 seconds that allowed the Bison's Lawrence Alexander to tie the score at 66 on a 3-pointer with 11.2 seconds left in regulation. The two free throws would have put the Sooners up five and possibly iced the game. Instead, the Sooners were forced to try to win the game at the end of regulation, and nearly succeeded. OU got three good looks at the basket, but missed all of them.
"It's upsetting to miss them three shots, but we were still pumped up to go into overtime," Ryan Spangler said. "We gave ourselves a chance to win at the end and it didn't happen, so we got more time to do that."
In overtime, senior Cam Clark, who put the Sooners on his back in regulation, tied the score twice, but a ticky-tack foul on Woodard put Dupree—who just entered the game—on the free throw line for a pair of free throws, which he calmly sank. After a missed 3-pointer from Cousins, Dupree—who averaged just 8.2 minutes per game this year—hit a floater over the valiant block attempt of Spangler for a 76-72 NDSU lead with 41.3 seconds left. Woodard turned the ball over on the other end for the Sooners, officially starting the party for the folks from Fargo, N.D.
"They fought, kind of out hustled us on rebounds and things like that," Clark said. "Overall they're a great team and we didn't do the things we needed to do to win, so credit them."
That the Sooners were even in a position to win the game in regulation at all is a testament to the sheer determination of Clark. After ending the first half trailing the Bison 37-29, Tyler Neal's 3-pointer tied the score at 50 with 11:38 remaining. OU then followed up that strong start to the half by going over eight minutes without a field goal. Clark's jumper with 3:01 remaining cut the NDSU lead to 59-57. On the next possession, Clark hit a 3-pointer to bring the Sooners to within a point.
After Cousins hit two free throws with 1:30 remaining to give OU its first lead since 29-28, Clark hit another jumper with 58 seconds to put the Sooners up, 64-61.
As great a job as Lon Kruger has done rebuilding the Sooners into a respectable program, he has yet to win a postseason game of any kind in Norman, now 0-3 in the Big 12 tournament and 0-2 in the NCAA tournament. Kruger said after the game it wasn't an issue of his players not understanding his message.
"No, they're doing fine," Kruger said of his team. "Obviously, (we're) disappointed that we haven't won in conference tournament or here. This group's done a heck of a job. They have made a lot of progress and we got to keep getting better, keep making progress as a program and as a group and they will do, they will do that."
Clark finished his OU career with a huge game of 25 points, 22 of those coming in the second half and overtime. Cousins had 17 points and Woodard had 13 points.
The Sooners were hurt in a big way by the poor play of Buddy Hield. The sophomore scored nine points and shot just 4-of-14 and 1-of-9 from 3-point range. Hield scored just two points after halftime and his 3-pointer that would have won the game at the end of regulation missed off the front of the rim.
Alexander led the Bison with a career-high 28 points. TrayVonn Wright had 14 points and Marshall Bjorklund added 13. The Sooners did a good job containing Bison leading scorer Taylor Braun, who finished with 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting, and fouled out with 1:18 left in overtime.
The Sooners had struggled with defense most of the season, and the Bison showed why they are the best field-goal percentage team in the country, finishing at 52.9 percent shooting, including a sizzling 62.5 percent in the first half.
Surprisingly, it was the OU offense that let the Sooners down on Thursday night. Oklahoma shot 34.7 percent for the game and was a terrible 13-of-42 inside the 3-point arc, nearly half of those coming from Clark (6).
Even though the Sooners overachieved all season, the disappointing end to the year will sting all offseason, and it should. The Sooners proved they were a better team than the one that couldn't shoot against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament and couldn't guard—and shoot—against North Dakota State.
"They took a big step this year," Kruger said. "They made a lot of progress from the start of the year to the finish. Again, in the short‑term this is extremely disappointing and hard to experience, but they like to play, they will continue making progress and we'll get back to work and try to get better."
The future is promising for the Sooners, with all but two players returning and being joined by a solid recruiting class. However, next year won't be on the minds of the Sooners tonight. What will be on their minds are a few of the easiest shots in basketball they couldn't get to fall through the hoop.