ANAHEIM, Calif. — Even with Oklahoma maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead throughout much of Saturday's Elite Eight matchup with Oregon, Buddy Hield's mom didn't want to risk altering her routine.
Jackie Swann spent the final 15 minutes of the Sooners' 80-68 victory pacing the Honda Center concourse deep in prayer.
The ritual originated back in the Bahamas when Swann was working three jobs to support her eight children. When Hield complained that his mom's rare appearances at his games typically resulted in losses, Swann began leaving her seat to pray whenever her son's team fell behind or its lead started to dwindle.
"I did it once and I noticed it worked, so I kept doing it," Swann said. "I believe in prayer and I believe in the power of God."
It's understandable that Swann's faith hasn't wavered considering the remarkable journey her son has taken since those days. It continued Saturday when Hield torched Oregon for 37 points, sent Oklahoma to its first Final Four since 2002 and soaked in some experiences that only a few years ago would have seemed unfathomable to him.
The boy who grew up playing on dirt courts and shooting into milk crates had a crowd of more than 16,000 chanting his name. The boy who used to study grainy YouTube videos of Kobe Bryant had his childhood idol applauding him from the stands across from the Oklahoma bench. The boy who used to wonder if an American coach would ever take a chance on him further solidified his case to be named college basketball's national player of the year.
"It's special, to be honest with you," Hield said. "As a kid you dream of having games like this. But I just thank my teammates and my coaching staff for putting me in position to score the ball. They gave me confidence to put the ball up."
While Hield had scored 26.3 points per game in Oklahoma's first three NCAA tournament victories, the nation's most lethal scorer saved his best for the Elite Eight stage. He knocked down eight 3-pointers, sank 13 of 20 shots from the field and made Oregon pay whenever it gave him so much as a sliver of space.
When Oregon assigned Elgin Cook to shadow him, Hield let his counterpart know it was going to be a long couple hours by sinking a step-back 3-pointer in his face in the game's opening minute. When the Ducks lost him in transition late in the first half, Hield pulled the trigger on a right-wing 3-pointer and shouted "Got 'em" before it even splashed through the net. When Hield ended the first half with a deep 3-pointer that extended Oklahoma's lead to 18, he roared on his way to the tunnel and popped his jersey in Bryant's direction.
"That was my favorite shot," Hield said. "After I looked at Kobe, he saluted me."
Oregon made enough of a second-half push to force Hield's mom out of her seat to pray, but the Ducks never got closer than within 12. By the time Hield sank his eighth 3-pointer to extend Oklahoma's lead to 16 with 5:22 to go, it was clear the Sooners were headed to Houston for a rematch with a Villanova team they beat by 23 on a neutral floor earlier this season.
Oklahoma's run is proof one-and-done prospects and five-star recruits aren't a requirement to reach a Final Four. The only Rivals.com top 100 recruit on the Sooners' roster is Hield and even he was virtually unknown until he arrived from the Bahamas and opened some eyes on the AAU circuit the summer before his senior year of high school.
Oklahoma assistant coach Chris Crutchfield first saw Hield play in the Bahamas back when he was 13 or 14 years old. What drew Crutchfield to Hield was not his game but his megawatt smile and unmistakable charisma.
"He came into the gym and he immediately had people's attention," Crutchfield said. "He wasn't a player yet. He was this little dusty-headed, skinny kid, but everybody liked him. He had this unbelievable confidence as a 14-year-old kid that I've never seen before."
Hield was far from a polished player when he arrived at Oklahoma four years ago, but the 6-foot-4 shooting guard has progressed each season thanks to a relentless work ethic. He'll shoot for an hour at 7 a.m., shoot in between classes at midday, practice with the team for a couple hours in the afternoon and then come back and shoot again once more before he goes to bed.
The product of all those hours in the gym is the shooting stroke that was on display on Saturday in Anaheim. One of the only times that Oregon managed to keep the ball out of the bottom of the net was when Hield launched a 3-pointer after referees blew a play dead and forward Jordan Bell swatted it out of the air just as it was about to fall through the rim.
"[Hield] had a phenomenal game," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "Every time I felt like we were getting ready to do something, he would jump up and make a shot."
When the game was all but over, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger subbed for Hield, allowing him to hug everyone on the Sooners bench and soak in the cheers from the crimson-clad crowd. He celebrated with his teammates on the floor afterward, pausing only to wrap his mom in a sweaty bear hug and playfully chide reporters for monopolizing her time.
Of course, Swann didn't mind. There's nothing she enjoys more than talking about her son's achievements even if she wasn't actually in the stands to witness some of them.
"This was the longest I've ever stayed in my seat," Swann said with a laugh. "They were leading and they were doing good and God was telling me to trust him."
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