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ANAHEIM — After the team picture with the trophy and the ceremony to cut down the net, Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield retreated to the middle of the floor for one more pose. He’d already knotted a piece of the net through his commemorative cap when he draped his arm around his mother, Jackie Swann. Hield’s head swiveled when she whispered a request, and he screamed to a stocky man wearing an Oklahoma pullover about 10 yards away. “Hey Toby!” Hield hollered. “My mom wants a picture with you.”
Country music legend Toby Keith pivoted on the hardwood and joined the Hields for one of the day’s many frozen moments. Keith is a son of Moore, Okla., and he has remained a Sooners diehard on his way to 20 No. 1 hits and international superstardom. Buddy Hield’s 37-point detonation against No. 1 Oregon in the West Regional final was a day for greatness to recognize greatness, and no one captured the essence of the Buddy experience better.
“There’s been a couple of guys, Hollis Price and Wayman Tisdale,” Keith said when asked if any OU stars have been as beloved as Buddy Love. “Buddy has the same magnetic smile and persona. Twenty years from now, people are going to look back and say, ‘That’s the Buddy Hield team.’”
Hield’s team secured Oklahoma’s first Final Four berth since the Price-led crew in 2002. The dominant tenor of the win is belied by the 80–68 final score, as Oregon didn’t come within single digits for the game’s final 25 minutes.
On a day when Keith etched him onto a Sooner basketball Mount Rushmore and Kobe Bryant saluted him from the stands, Hield delivered the type of performance that will be mimicked on driveways from Enid to Edmond for years to come. Hield’s scoring spree can be compared to Duke’s Christian Laettner in 1992 and Davidson’s Steph Curry in 2008, a once-a-decade type performance with highlight after highlight destined for slow-motion montages. He finished with 37 points, the most of any player in this NCAA tournament, topping his own mark of 36 set against VCU in the round of 32. (Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan also scored 36 in double overtime against Texas A&M in that same round). Hield scored the most points in a regional final game since 1990, when Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble had 42 against UNLV. “Buddy came out and turned into an assassin right off the jump,” said Oklahoma assistant coach Chris Crutchfield, “and he wasn’t going to let his team lose.”
The numbers are daunting enough: 13-for-20 shooting and 8-for-13 from three-point range. But no statline can capture the verve, joy and utter domination that Hield brought to the court on Saturday. He started the game with a 25-foot three-pointer and then hit perhaps the day’s most memorable shot. From the deep left corner, he shook Oregon’s Elgin Cook on the dribble and stepped back for a three-pointer with Cook’s hand in his face. It splashed through the net, cut from the cloth of the Curry Collection. For the rest of the afternoon, Oregon’s defense attempting to stop Hield mirrored that old joke about a one-legged duck: They were swimming in circles. “It was pretty much impossible,” said Oregon’s Jordan Bell. “He was just having one of those games.”
Hield said he realized in the first half that his hero, Bryant, was in the Honda Center when he noticed a flurry of fans pulling out their phones. Hield was so giddy he relayed the news to guard Jordan Woodard on the floor. Hield was mesmerizing and mesmerized, as his hero came to see him play and he did his best to play his hero. “Everyone who knows me,” Hield said, “knows I’m a Kobe Bryant fanatic.” After those first two breathtaking three-pointers, Hield showed off his repertoire. He dunked home a one-handed putback, laid a ball high off the glass and darted through the lane for acrobatic runners. He stretched the defense to allow wingmen Woodard (13 points) and Isaiah Cousins (11) a bevy of open looks and lanes. Hield joked that when he shot a 30-foot air ball at one point, the crowd gasped with disappointment. It got to the point where they expected everything to go in. Ultimately, he put on a show that an audience of one could relate to. “You know you have to perform,” Hield said, “when The Mamba is in town.”
For Hield, this wasn’t as much of a moment as it was a coda, the destiny of Hield’s transcendent game and resplendent smile shining on sport’s biggest platform. Hield could have been a first-round draft pick last season, but he stuck around Norman to refine his game and lead his teammates on a joyride. In the quiet of the OU coaches locker room, Crutchfield recalled the day that Hield decided he’d forgo the NBA for one more season. “April 24,” he said without hesitation. “He texted me that day, ‘Unfinished business, I want to take this team to the Final Four.’”
Buddy didn’t just lead them, he carried them, cajoled them and captivated them. He’s arguably the biggest college star since the turn of the century to reach the Final Four. Certainly there have been better players and prospects, like Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Memphis’s Derrick Rose and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. But in terms of a four-year star and a top-10 pick who has become the rare college basketball household name, there’s no one who has captivated the country at this high of a level. BYU’s Jimmer Fredette and Creighton’s Doug McDermott never advanced this far. Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison ended his career in heartbreak. And Curry’s magic died in the waning moments of the Elite Eight. Hield’s 25.4 points per game average on the season is the highest of any player heading to the Final Four since Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott in 1990. Hield has been a generationally dominant player, carrying his team to the highest level with him. This was the 19th time this season he scored more than 25 points and the 12th that recorded at least 30. “I marvel at how consistent he’s been at a high level throughout the year,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
The moment Hield will treasure most from Saturday came when he waded through the crowd and found his mother amid a flood of players and family near midcourt. They locked in a hug neither wanted to release. As 10 seconds turned to 20 and then 30, they cried tears of joy, gave credit to God and danced and swayed and wept at a moment a lifetime in the making. “We shed a lot of tears,” Hield said afterward. “My mom is an emotional lady. I can get emotional around her. They know how hard I fought for this. I told them I was going to get there.”
The only thing that didn’t go right for Hield on Saturday was far out of his control. He declared after the game that he wanted Kansas to beat Villanova, setting up a rematch of the Big 12 rivals who waged the most memorable regular-season college basketball game this year. But the second-seeded Wildcats upset the No. 1 Jayhawks 64–59 in the South Regional final, meaning the Sooners will play Villanova in the national semifinals on Saturday, a rematch of when the two schools met on Dec. 7 in Hawaii and resulted in a 78–55 Oklahoma win. That’s Hield's life these days, only minor problems. His greatness will be on display for at least one more game for everyone to recognize.