That might be just the extra boost the Oklahoma Sooners need in the NCAA tournament.
Crocker scored a career-high 28 points and hit six of his first eight 3-pointers, balancing out Blake Griffin’s usual stellar performance with 30 points and 14 rebounds as the Sooners routed Syracuse 84-71 Friday night in the South Regional semifinal. Crocker hadn’t hit more than two 3s in a game since Feb. 7.
“He needed this,” Oklahoma guard Cade Davis said of Crocker. “His confidence was down. He played great. This game is going to help tremendously and not only him but for us going into the next game. Me and Omar (Leary) kept telling him to keep looking for shots, and he did and just kept knocking them down.”
That sets up Sunday’s regional final with top-seeded North Carolina, a 98-77 winner over Gonzaga, in the Sooners’ pursuit of their fifth Final Four and first since 2002. And the Sooners (30-5) now feel they are clicking as well as ever.
“Everybody’s competing the whole time,” Griffin said. “Everybody’s playing hard, and everybody’s doing the little things. ... We have guys that can score points.”
Crocker set the tone by hitting the Sooners’ first shot, a 3 from the top of the key over Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. Oklahoma finished 9-of-21 from 3-point range, and the Sooners made Syracuse pay dearly for its mistakes by scoring 32 points off the Orange’s 18 turnovers.
The loss kept Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim from notching the 800th win of his career. He wasn’t happy with his Orange going 0-of-10 from 3-point range in the first half or the loose balls they lost on turnovers.
“We got some turnovers and we got it and turned it right back over to them under our basket three times. And it was I think two three-point plays and a layup. That was eight points. And that was, along with the shooting, really the difference in the first half. In the game,” Boeheim said.
Oklahoma led throughout, and Griffin added pain to the Syracuse loss by mowing over 6-foot Jonny Flynn late in the first half as the gutsy point guard tried to take a charge to get the Big 12 player of the year into foul trouble. The call went against Flynn, then Griffin hit the free throw for another three-point play.
“Blake Griffin is as good as advertised, and Crocker came out there and had a tremendous shooting night,” Flynn said. “They deserved to win.”
Griffin showed off his physical style repeatedly as he shot 12-of-15, including 6-of-10 at the line. But he put on another display with more of his thundering dunks, including one where he drove the baseline and clanked his noggin off the corner of the backboard on his way to the basket.
“That’s the first time in a game,” Griffin said of scraping against the backboard, a remark that drew a laugh from Crocker. “It took me by surprise. I got too close.”
Syracuse had expected Griffin to do what he did. The Orange struggled because their shots didn’t fall, and they couldn’t slow down Crocker. Flynn finished with 22 points in trying to rally his teammates. But Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins were a combined 1-of-13 in the first half, though Rautins finished with 12 — all in the second half.
“We were missing shots, and they were making shots,” Devendorf said. “It was just their night.”
Flynn scored six straight points starting with a running one-hander, then a drive and finally a jumper to pull them within 18-17 with 7:15 to go in the first half.
That was as close as they would get as Oklahoma led 39-26 at halftime and put together a 20-2 spurt spanning the halves.
Crocker said that first shot meant a lot after his struggles.
“That zone gave us a lot of spots to have open shots, so we just tried to take advantage of that,” he said.
Griffin was happy to see the production.
“It makes our job so much easier when he’s playing like he did today. They can’t sink down in the zone. They had to respect him all game long because he was hitting shots all game long. It takes our team to another level when he plays like he did,” Griffin said.