After taking down cellar-dwelling USF on the road, the men’s basketball team came back from a double-digit deficit to topple Tulane and maintain their top-four conference seed.
Emboldened by a big win over SMU, the Golden Hurricane rolled into Tampa, Florida, looking forward to a much easier matchup against lowly USF. Though they didn’t play their best ball, TU was able to hold off the scrappy Bulls and win 63-54, moving above .500 in conference play while dropping their opponents to just 1-10.
Looking uncharacteristically out of sorts on the offensive end out of the gate, Tulsa struggled to generate clean looks and knock down shots, missing seven of their first eight shots from the field and shooting just 26.5 percent from the floor in the half. Corey Henderson and Martins Igbanu in particular were ice cold, each held without a point, while Junior Etou once again looked frustratingly passive against an inferior defense. He made only one basket and was unable to earn a trip to the free throw line, deterred by the long arms of opposing seven-footer Nikola Scekic. Still, the Golden Hurricane annihilated the offensive glass, gobbling up 12 second-chance opportunities to USF’s one and entered the break leading by five, 28-23.
Coming out firing in the second, the Bulls were led by point guard Stephan Jiggets, who scored eight points quick as a flash to help his team regain the lead. This time, however, TU had an answer in Etou, who showcased his full offensive arsenal. Faking, spinning, driving to the basket or hoisting it up from long range, Etou couldn’t be stopped. DaQuan Jeffries also had an excellent game off the bench, continuing to play the role of a man taller than his listed height of six foot five inches. Jeffries poured in 10 points, including back-to-back three pointers to help the Golden Hurricane pull away. He finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four blocks in only 23 minutes. TU got its lead up to 13 before a mini-run brought the Bulls to within five with a minute left. One dagger three from Etou later, and the threat was over.
Returning home to the Reynolds Center on Thursday, Tulsa matched up against the underachieving Tulane Green Wave. It was a nailbiter for the Golden Hurricane, who fell behind by 10 to end the first half and never led in the second before tying and sending the game to overtime. In the end, they would escape with a 91-89 victory to improve to 14-10 (7-5 AAC). Tulane saw its slim chances at a first-round bye in the conference championship all but evaporate, falling to 4-7 in league play.
The ball appeared much less sticky in this one. Everyone engaged and was quick to act, and TU had no problem amassing a big lead early on. Seven players managed to get on the board in the first half, led by Etou with 11 and Sterling Taplin, who dished five assists. Unfortunately, Tulsa had no answer for Tulane’s size, and the the Green Wave absolutely dominated in the paint, shooting an astounding 64.3 percent from the field. Six-foot-six swingman Jordan Cornish, given more ball-handling license with leading scorer Melvin Frazier out for injury, penetrated the gaps in TU’s matchup zone effortlessly on his way to 14 points. Meanwhile, bench big Samir Sehic was unstoppable as a roll man, repeatedly rumbling past Igbanu and Etou for almost uncontested looks at the rim. He shot a perfect 5-5 from the floor in the half. When the horn sounded, the Golden Hurricane, despite generating all sorts of open looks and favorable mismatches, found themselves down 10 points.
It was clear from the outset of the second half that the team made significant defensive adjustments to counter Tulane’s relentless attacking offense. Though it took nearly ten minutes for TU to cut substantially into the lead, they allowed fewer uncontested baskets and forced the Green Wave to play deeper into the shot clock.
Coach Frank Haith would later go on to describe the adjustment as “shrinking the zone.” He told me postgame that in the first half, “We got spread out a lot in our defense. We wanted to jump into the ball better and be in gaps, not allow the lane to look so open. In the second half, they were looking more at two guys as opposed to just the one guy iso.”
Even with their much-improved defensive play, the Golden Hurricane never would have had a chance without huge second-halves from Taplin and Igbanu. Overcoming several questionable calls, the two X-factors didn’t allow themselves to be punked and played their most physical halves of the year. Igbanu opted out of playing his usual back-to-the basket game, instead causing havoc with crisp baseline cuts and acting as a vacuum cleaner on the boards. He pulled down seven rebounds (four offensive) and got his hands on several more while leading all scorers in the half with 14 points. Cycling through numerous picks and handoffs on the perimeter, Taplin found himself several times facing off against Sahic on the switch. All thoughts of passivity or stepping back out of his mind, Taplin cooked the big man repeatedly and drove to the cup like a madman, showing off some truly impressive body control. His clutch free throws with under 10 seconds to go tied the game for the Golden Hurricane.
Hurrying the ball down the floor, Tulane managed a good look from three by Cornish on the left wing, but the shot was a brick. Recovered by the Green Wave, the ball was momentarily stripped, then emphatically rejected out of bounds by Taplin to send the game to OT.
In the extra period, neither team looked to have an edge and the two went back and forth, trading buckets. Henderson and Jeffries each chipped in four points, but the hero was Taplin, who on TU’s final possession blew right past little used backup point guard Riley Conroy for a tough runner that dripped down the glass to give the Golden Hurricane the 91-89 advantage. It was a smart play by Taplin, who once again took advantage of an overmatched defender to take it inside.
“We were in the bonus, so I just wanted to get to the hoop,” he said after the game. “Either they were going to foul or we were going to score.” One off-the-backboard brick from Conroy later and that was all she wrote.
As nice as it was for the Golden Hurricane to win its third consecutive game, it was somewhat discouraging that it took such a monumental effort to beat a below .500 team missing two starters. I like TU’s ability to make adjustments, but against a superior opponent, they could find themselves in too big a hole to climb out of (see the January game against Houston).
In my never-ending quest to figure out Lawson Korita’s bafflingly inconsistent playing time and his continued presence in the starting lineup, I asked Coach Haith if we might see Jaleel Wheeler’s return to the starting five given the upward trend of his playing time and production over the past month (he tallied 11 points and nine rebounds in a season-high 36 minutes against Tulane). I got a predictably coach-speak answer: “It’s not about who starts, it’s who finishes. That’s the way the game is played.” I mean … I guess that’s true? But if it really doesn’t matter, and if there are going to be nights where Korita barely gets five minutes of playing time, why does he continue to get the honor over Wheeler, who has seniority, or Elijah Joiner, the higher-upside freshman who could use the experience? I don’t know. This still doesn’t make any sense to me.