Without Harmon, OU’s role players step up in tournament win

Tyler Hollins

When watching Oklahoma men’s basketball the first player many people notice is guard Austin Reaves, and for good reason.

The do-it-all guard hardly ever comes off the floor and rarely goes a possession without touching the ball. He leads the Sooners in scoring (17.7), rebounds (5.7) and assists (4.7) per game.

While Reaves starred in Oklahoma’s 72-68 win against Missouri on Saturday in a first-round West Region NCAA Tournament game — scoring 23 points — his supporting cast also played a big role.

Starting guard De’Vion Harmon missed Saturday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19. Harmon started 23 games for the Sooners this season and is the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game.

Harmon’s absence depleted what already was a thin Oklahoma team, with coach Lon Kruger usually playing an eight-man rotation.

This meant more of the scoring load fell upon forward Brady Manek and guard Elijah Harkless. As starters, they’re key players in Oklahoma’s rotation but aren’t looked upon to score as much as Reaves and Harmon.

That wasn’t the case Saturday as the trio of Reaves, Manek and Harkless combined for 58 of the Sooners’ 72 points.

Manek’s floor-spacing ability gave the Tigers fits throughout the game. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin started the game with Jeremiah Tilmon defending Manek, which didn’t bode well for Missouri. Manek lived on the perimeter, keeping Tilmon out of the paint and giving the Tigers no rim protection.

Martin made an adjustment coming out of halftime to put Kobe Brown on Manek, which allowed Tilmon to defend the paint. Missouri didn’t have a block in the first half, but had four in the second, two of which by Tilmon.

“We scouted it and knew (Manek) was going to be a shooter,” Tilmon said. “We just made some adjustments and had me guarding different players because when we was in the ball screens I was having to help and do downs and stuff like that and giving him too much space, so we just made a couple adjustments.”

Martin chalked up Missouri’s defensive struggles to “ just breakdowns.”

“Guys didn’t go up to the line and contest the shot like they needed to,” Martin said.

While the second-half adjustment gave Missouri more rim protection, it didn’t hinder Manek. He finished with 19 points, 13 in the second half, while also serving as the Sooners’ primary defender on Tilmon.

“It’s easy,” Reaves said. “Get (Manek) the ball, and he’s going to do the rest. Coach had a really good game plan offensively, defensively, to get guys in the position that he wanted us to be in. For Brady to make shots like that it’s super big.”

Harkless posted 16 points, three shy of tying a season high. He was decisive with each move he made, sometimes relying on his midrange jumper. Whenever Missouri made a run, it was Harkless who righted the ship for Oklahoma.

Even with the larger scoring role, Harkless still did the little things that have kept him in Kruger’s rotation. Listed at 6-foot-3, Harkless had a team-high 10 rebounds and two steals.

“He did everything that he usually does and then produced really well on the offensive end, which we know he’s capable of,” Reaves said. “If you watch the game you could tell he was one of the best players on the floor tonight.”

Saturday’s game marked another time Oklahoma stepped up without a key player in the lineup. In January, the Sooners defeated Alabama, a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament, without Reaves because of COVID-19 contact tracing.

Despite having five players, including Reaves, miss time this season due to either contact tracing or testing positive for COVID-19, Oklahoma stayed competitive. When needed, the Sooners stepped up and filled in the gaps Saturday, sending Missouri home in the process.