There’s nowhere to hide on a basketball court. When the ball is in your hands, all eyes are on you. All of those eyes want to see what you’re going to do, what you’re capable of. Can you shoot like Kobe? Can you drive and kick like Kidd? Can you spot up like Reggie?
Sometimes, your skillful best isn’t what will appear, even when you want it to. In basketball, everyone has days and nights where that’s exactly the case if they play long enough. And sometimes, those bad days and nights become slumps. It’s the game’s way of teaching.
“If you don’t go through something like that, it’s hard to be humble,” Michael Jordan said.
Ryan Spangler acknowledged how tough the league’s worst team, Texas Christian had made it on him, and the No. 25 Sooners after TCU had played probably its best Big 12 game of the season.
The Horned Frogs limited Sooner second chance opportunities. That’s mostly the reason OU managed just nine points off 10 offensive boards. TCU had made good use of the 15 turnovers the Sooners committed, scoring 24 points off them.
Spangler had scored 13 points and 16 boards for his eighth double-double in 19 games. But it might have all been for naught. Through 36 and half minutes of a 40-minute battle at Lloyd Noble on Wednesday night, the Horned Frogs had not only played with No. 25 team in the country but looked like beating them.
“They did not let us run our stuff as well as we usually do,” Spangler said. “They kept us from pushing it out, and they slowed the game down how they wanted to.”
TCU kept Spangler scoreless in the first half and limited scoring opportunities for the Sooner starters. Freshman Jordan Woodard was held scoreless in the first half too. He ended the game with just two points and was 0-for-3 from the floor. Cam Clark missed twice as many shots as he made.
At halftime, it didn’t look like the Sooners would survive another cold scoring spell. They needed help from the men who start the game sitting in a chair — just like the fans in stands. They needed four of those men to carry them in spurts and score in bursts. One of them was sophomore guard Je’lon Hornbeak.
Hornbeak was struggling. In his last five games, he’d scored only six points. He’s played four games this season where he didn’t score at al1. One was an 87-76 lost to Michigan State. The other was a seven-point lost at home against Kansas.
In either contest, 10 points from Hornbeak would’ve changed the dynamic of the game. Maybe even won them. But things happened in between those games too.
Hornbeak was still finding his way as point guard after beginning his career at OU as a 2-guard. He and sophomore Isaiah Cousins had essentially swapped positions. Cousins became more of a wing player, free to score rather than worry about scoring while saddled with the point guard duties.
The switch looked good for both late last season and early this season. Then Hornbeak broke his left foot days before OU’s game against Tulsa.
A few weeks away from the game didn’t seem to do him any favors. In his first game back, he played 14 minutes in OU’s win against Texas and didn’t score. His highest scoring output before OU’s game against TCU was just three points against Iowa State.
But he hadn’t changed his game. He stayed with what he knew. He was going to continue to get up shots at practice and be patient.
Two days before OU’s tilt with TCU, local beat writers and sportscasters had already spoken with a few players in the men’s basketball practice gym. On Martin Luther King Day, a holiday, Hornbeak could still be found on the main court at Lloyd Noble putting up shot after shot.
TCU continued to fight back in the second half, and not for the first time. Each time the Sooners built a double-digit lead the Horned Frogs found a way to cut into and bring the score back to level.
“Each time we were up 10 there,” said OU coach Lon Kruger during his postgame presser, “it seemed like we would have a poor possession. They would knock down the 3s, and it’s a four- or five-point ball game.”
OU eventually broke the Horned Frogs. They hit shots when it mattered, got buckets when they had to.
Along with Spangler, Hornbeak was brought in for postgame with Kruger. Hornbeak’s demeanor was the same as it was two days ago. His level head is perhaps his greatest attribute on the court.
“The first one went down, and you get a little confidence after that,” said Hornbeak following OU’s 77-69 win against Texas Christian. “I think the other one’s were off of free throws. So it was good to see one jump shot go in. I just kept attacking, and the ball just fell for me.”
The buckets didn’t come all at once for Hornbeak, but they buckets came. The scoreboard reflects how much the Sooners needed baskets from Hornbeak to fall. By the end of the night, he’d accounted for 10 points — half of OU’s bench’s 20 points — and Oklahoma won by eight. Sometimes, you just have to keep shooting.