Their 3-0 start to conference play all but forgotten, the Golden Hurricane dropped their second and third consecutive games to Houston and Wichita St.
Coming off a tough road loss to Memphis that ended Tulsa’s perfect start to conference play, the Golden Hurricane traveled to Houston knowing it could reassert itself as an AAC contender with an upset over the Cougars. Unfortunately, star point guard Rob Gray and co. had other plans.
Both teams came out firing and after a closely contested first five minutes of trading buckets at a frantic pace, DaQuan Jeffries tied the game at 15 with a high-arcing corner three. It was the last time TU would be in the game; Houston pulled ahead by two on a midrange jumper from Gray moments later, the first basket of what would amount to a crippling 21-3 run. The Golden Hurricane went into the break completely dejected, down an almost insurmountable 59-34 at halftime.
Things only got worse in the second half, as the Cougars’ lead ballooned to as many as 40 points behind a barrage of threes. Less than a week after TU had set the American conference record with 17 three pointers against UConn, Houston broke it by canning an incredible 18 treys. Gray and sixth man Armoni Brooks led the way with five threes apiece, the latter on his way to a game-high 34 points.
In the face of the miserable defeat, the team could look proudly on the play of Martins Igbanu, who displayed his increasingly fluid post game against the undersized Houston front line and finished with a career-high 27 points. The rest of the team struggled mightily from the floor, shooting just 26 percent from three and 39 percent overall. Junior Etou, the team’s leading scorer, couldn’t get anything going against the Cougars’ ball denial and trapping scheme and was held without a field goal.
Thankfully for the TU faithful, the Golden Hurricane put up a much stronger effort at home Saturday against number 5-ranked Wichita St. Playing in a packed house that looked (and sounded) to be as much as 75 percent Shockers fans, Tulsa came out with the same frantic pace and aggressive scheme that it had thrown at Houston. And for the first twelve or so minutes, it looked to be working.
Following a three pointer on their opening possession, Wichita St. would not lead again until four minutes were left in the half. Star point guard Landry Shamet had no answer for his TU counterpart, as Sterling Taplin toasted him early on by knocking down three first half threes. The lead would get as high as 10 for the Golden Hurricane, before the seasoned and talented Shockers fought back to take a 36-32 halftime lead.
It looked like another loss was inevitable, as Wichita St. was able to fend off every Tulsa run in the second half with bucket after bucket from Shamet and sharpshooter Conner Frankamp. The Golden Hurricane managed to get back within two on an Etou three pointer with 15:00 left to play, but several minutes and questionable calls later, the lead was back up to double digits.
In the final three minutes, facing a seven-point deficit, Taplin put the team on his back with a breathtaking display of ball-handling and gutsy shot-making. He scored three of TU’s last four buckets and assisted on the other to get within two points, then watched as Corey Henderson’s three pointer from the right wing rimmed out after being halfway down. On the game’s final possession, down three, Taplin was fouled at midcourt and strode to the free throw line knowing the team needed another offensive possession. He missed the free throw, Etou grabbed the board, then spun and found his point guard retreating to the left wing. Taplin got a good look as the buzzer sounded but couldn’t knock it down, and Wichita St. survived, 72-69.
Taplin led the way for the Golden Hurricane with a career-high 26 points and six three pointers, also dishing seven assists against only a single turnover in just 30 minutes. Henderson contributed with 14 points and four threes. Shamet and Frankamp paced the Shockers with 16 points apiece.
Why oh why does Lawson Korita continue to start and get so much playing time? DaQuan Jeffries returned to the starting rotation against Houston and did fine, showing off his trademark length, athleticism, and quick hands. He’s not as a good a shooter as his gaudy percentages would suggest, but he’s a guy the defense has to respect from the corner, as well as the team’s most versatile defender. It makes no sense that he should be losing minutes to the smaller, less athletic, worse-shooting Korita, who is ignored by defenders on the perimeter and offers nothing as a ball handler or creator. Similarly confusing, why was Darien Jackson playing meaningful minutes early on against Houston, when we were still in the game?
I’m not too concerned about Junior Etou’s recent slump. He’s an unselfish player who doesn’t force his shot, and when he knows it’s not falling (or when the other team is denying him the ball), he’ll go to work helping the team in other ways. Still, while it’s encouraging to see the likes of Igbanu, Taplin and Henderson coming up big, we could use a more aggressive Junior as we get deeper into conference play.