NCAA tournament 2018: How Rhode Island beat Oklahoma and Trae Young

No. 10 Rhode Island beat No. 7 Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region on Thursday in Pittsburgh, 83-78, in overtime. The Rams had three players score between 14 and 16 points, and they’ll get either Duke or Iona in the second round.

Trae Young is the only reason this game even had overtime.

Well, not the only. Rhode Island also missed a put-back by a hair at the end of regulation that would’ve stopped the game in its tracks. But Young was the main reason. He finished his day with 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting, seven assists, and five rebounds.

Oklahoma trailed, 59-52, with seven minutes left. The Sooners scored 17 points for the remainder of regulation, getting the game to overtime at 69-all. Young scored 14 of those points, single-handedly dragging his teammates into a chance to win the game.

Young had been great in the first half: 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, to go with three rebounds and two assists. He only played 14 minutes in that half, a low total for him, because of two early fouls. But he drove Oklahoma’s offense more than anyone else, and the Sooners took a four-point lead into halftime because of it. He looked like his classic, wiggly self, dribbling through crevices to set up difficult makes …

… and making a couple of sweet plays that didn’t show up on the stat sheet:

He’d gone cold in the second half, for a while. He missed his first five shots from the field after the break, before he put down four of his next five. Young was the best player in college basketball this year at getting to the foul line, and after not getting there for the game’s first 33 minutes, he was 5-of-6 at the line down the stretch for force OT.

Still, Rhode Island did a quality job against Young overall.

The Rams play some of the highest-pressure defense in the country. They entered the tournament ranked No. 5 in defensive turnover rate, with coach Dan Hurley instructing his players to go after opposing ball-handlers aggressively. They did that all afternoon against Young, and while he got his points, the Rams made him work for them.

At one point in the second half, he got stripped carrying the ball up the court by Rhode Island’s Fatts Mitchell, who turned around and swished a three-pointer right in Young’s face:

Young committed another turnover on a one-on-one fast break, when he lost the ball out of bounds trying to turn his defender inside-out. Young finished the game with six turnovers. That’s not awful for someone who carries the ball as much as he does, but it’s not good. Rhode Island had six turnovers as a team. They cut hard into Young’s efficiency.

It’s also no small achievement Young was held to six free throws. Whether the Rams really defended him that well or just got some lax officiating help is beside the point. Young had more than six FTAs in all but nine games this season and averaged 8.6. He wound up with a pretty standard foul-shooting rate for him, but it took an overtime game for him to get there. Young spent most of the afternoon unable to get to his bread and butter. That’s a credit to the handful of Rams, notably Mitchell, who had to guard him.

This game was a microcosm of Oklahoma’s season: When Young was good, the Sooners were good. When he struggled, they had no solutions.

Oklahoma is this season’s most notable “start great, finish terrible” team. The Sooners were 14-2 after an overtime win against TCU on Jan. 13. They were 4-11 in their next 15 games, culminating in an ugly loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. The rival Cowboys, who didn’t make the NCAA field, beat Oklahoma twice during that 4-11 stretch.

The likely national player of the year did most of his best work early in the season. Young’s raw scoring totals were absurd all season, but he was less efficient on a shot-for-shot basis as the Big 12 campaign wore on. The best illustration was a 22-point, 21-shot attempt outing in the tournament loss to Oklahoma State. He had a better output against Rhode Island: 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting. But mix in Young’s six giveaways and the point that the rest of his team shot 20-of-51 from the field (39 percent), and it’s no surprise that OU didn’t win.

It’s not that Young was ever bad. He was great all year, and his 27-point, nine-assist average will carve out a place for him in modern college hoops lore. But the rest of the Sooners were so bad that Young had to be close to perfect for them to beat good teams. When Young struggled in overtime (4 points on 1-of-4 shooting), OU didn’t have any recourse.

Rhode Island is a good team. Young was Superman for about 15 minutes, but his teammates needed him to be Superman a little bit longer. That’s not fair to Young, but it was the Sooners’ reality for an entire season.

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