TU fell well short in their upset bid over Wichita St., but strong performances from Junior Etou and Corey Henderson fueled a big win over Southern Methodist to move the team into a tie for fourth place.
After more than a week off, the Golden Hurricane traveled to Wichita State for their second away game of the season against the Shockers. (What? I’m not still bitter about that all-yellow sellout crowd on January 13. Why do you ask?). Wichita St. had been struggling since barely escaping the Reynolds Center by the skin of their teeth, dropping games to unranked SMU and Houston and falling out of the top 10 rankings. But TU was unable to extend the Shockers’ slump.
Shots were falling early for the Golden Hurricane, which jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead and held the advantage through the first ten minutes. Tulsa’s matchup zone never looked like much of a problem for Wichita St., whose snappy passing around the perimeter was able to generate plenty of open looks. Still, had it not been for the freakish play of bench guard Austin Reaves, averaging fewer than seven points and 20 minutes entering the game, TU might have gone into the break with the advantage. As it were, Reaves was possessed by the spirit of Klay Thompson in this one, draining 7-11 threes. He wouldn’t score in the second half but still ended with a career-high 23 points.
To Tulsa’s credit, they managed to hang tough in the second, twice trimming the deficit to just four points after Wichita St. extended their lead to 17 in the early going. Junior Etou and Corey Henderson continued to take and make big shots, the latter on his way to 28 points. The Shockers just played too well, moving the ball with purpose and feeding center Shaq Morris, who feasted from the high post and finished with 20 points in 21 minutes. When the buzzer sounded on their 90-71 win, they had piled up 27 assists on just 32 made field goals, a staggering number for college basketball.
Now below .500 in conference play, the Golden Hurricane returned home to take on the SMU Mustangs in the final test of their brutal mid-season stretch. It was a pitched battle in the early going, both teams going on long runs and neither able to gain much of an advantage. Playing without Shake Milton, their leading scorer, the Mustangs found plenty of firepower early on in Jahmal McMurray, who knocked down five three-pointers in the first half and led all scorers with 16 points. He didn’t get much help though, and TU dominated in points in the paint against SMU’s four guard lineup. Martins Igbanu led a balanced attack with six points, DaQuan Jeffries threw down a couple monster jams from Sterling Taplin and Tulsa went into the half down just one.
From there it was the Etou and Henderson show. The Golden Hurricane’s leading scorers put the team on their backs, exploiting mismatches and breaking down the Mustang defense on their way to netting to 17 and 18 points respectively. Fifteen of those came from Henderson, who put on yet another trademark three-point shooting display where every contested 23-foot jumper makes you want to tear your hair out before it rattles in without touching the net.
SMU did not go down quietly behind McMurray and Ben Emelogu II, who tallied a career-high 28 points on 10-18 shooting. But TU was ultimately able to secure the win and move into a tie with the Mustangs for fourth place in the conference, at 5-5. Igbanu and Jeffries also scored in double figures for the Golden Hurricane, as did Jaleel Wheeler, who lived at the free throw line (9-10 from the stripe) in a season-high 30 minutes. Etou also contributed a game-high 15 rebounds.
Though our chances at an NCAA tournament appearance are mostly caput (they were slim to begin with), TU now suddenly finds itself in a shockingly good position to make a top-four seed and earn a first-round bye in the American conference playoff. Tulsa is deadlocked with SMU, UCF and Memphis at 5-5 and has a favorable rest-of-season schedule. There are a few tests remaining, but the only game that looks unwinnable is Cincinnati; a 7-1 run to close the season is not out of the question. Meanwhile, Memphis still has Houston and Wichita St. on the docket, UCF has Wichita St. and Cincinnati and poor SMU has all three toughest opponents remaining (including two against the Cougars!). Yes, things are looking up.