After ending their 13-game losing streak Saturday at Texas Christian, the Kansas State Wildcats rode the momentum of good vibes to do what previously seemed unthinkable: They took down No. 7 Oklahoma, 62-57, in Manhattan Tuesday night.
Funny thing is, the Cats (7-18, 3-13 Big 12) suffered through some of the same problems that had led to the prolonged run of futility. They shot poorly from outside (0-for-8 from outside to begin the game, and only 7-27 overall for a 25.9% finish). They struggled through 6:47 of second-half game time in which they did not score a single point. That drought began at 13:21, with K-State leading OU (14-6, 9-5) by a 40-35 count. By the time the Wildcats scored again, the Sooners answered with an Austin Reaves three-pointer to push their own advantage to 47-42 with only 5:11 to play. Things were looking familiarly bleak.
But Mike McGuirl wasn’t going to allow his Senior Night to be a disappointment. The Cats’ lone senior made three-point baskets on three straight possessions, and after DaJuan Gordon utilized the hulking screen of Davion Bradford, who had fallen to the floor, to convert a lay-up, K-State had turned the tables and led 58-53 with 1:15 remaining.
Reaves made consecutive layups to pull the Sooners within one. But OU had to foul three times before the Wildcats were in the bonus. It did them no good, anyway, as Nijel Pack and DaJuan Gordon each knocked down both ends of 1-and-1 opportunities to slam the door on Lon Kruger’s team, who has yet to defeat the Bruce Weber-led Cats in Bramlage Coliseum.
How did the Cats do it? Defense. And a little assist from the mouth of OU’s star player.
Reaves, a transfer from Wichita State, is an intriguing talent. He is creative and exceedingly difficult to guard when he has the basketball. He is prone to taking shots that look forced, but he makes them at a high rate. Reaves was 9-for-18 on the night, 2-4 from three-point range, and 5-6 from the free throw line. Do the math, and that comes up to 25 points. A pretty efficient 25, in fact.
Unfortunately for fans of the crimson and cream, he picked up a foul trying to stop a Selton Miguel basket attack with just under eight minutes to play in the first half, then said something that drew an immediate technical foul. Miguel clapped knowingly, so it must have been one of the “magic” words that you just don’t say. At the time, his team was ahead 18-13. He sat out until halftime, and the teams went to the break knotted at 29 each.
The defense—led mostly by McGuirl—forced Reaves into 4 turnovers and held him to a single assist. Though he scored 18 of his 25 in the second half, his team managed only 28 in the period, as the Sooner offense could not find any team rhythm. Want proof? No other Sooner scored more than 4 second-half points. K-State has featured aggressive chest-to-chest perimeter defense over the past several games with tough ball pressure. It was a risky strategy against a player like Reaves who thrives on driving into the lane. Turns out, it was the right strategy. He got his. But he got little for any of his teammates.
The K-State defense held OU to 39% shooting, and only 4-20 from beyond the arc. In truth, both teams got open looks, especially in the first half, but just failed to make them. But K-State bodied up and made life hard for the Sooners, forcing 15 turnovers against only 12 for K-State. The Wildcats cleared the boards efficiently, outrebounding OU 38-33 and yielding only 6 second-chance points. They held the Sooners to 16 points in the paint. The experience gained from the painful grind appears to be paying off as the young Wildcats mature.
K-State thrived when it got the ball in to Bradford. The 7-foot freshman was 6-7 from the field, scored 13 points and cleared 8 rebounds. OU tried to flop him out of the game. But after they picked up two fouls on the big guy, he avoided further harm. He did step on a Sooner’s foot and do a scary looking splits that kept him down for the aforementioned Gordon layup. After a few moments on the bench, Bradford re-entered the game. Crisis dodged, we hope.
McGuirl led the way for the Cats with 19 points on 7-13, 5-9 shooting. He also had 7 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist to fill the stat sheet on his senior night. Bradford, as previously mentioned, was second on the team with 13. DaJuan Gordon recorded a double-double, 11 points and 10 rebounds. Nijel Pack, who struggled through a 2-12, 1-7 shooting night, scored nine points, but matched that total with an impressive 9 assists.
Shooting has been a yearlong bugaboo, but tonight we saw how timely shooting can turn a game’s outcome in a flash. Oklahoma held a 53-47 lead after a De’vion Harmon free throw with 3:57 to play. McGuirl hit his threes at 3:33, 2:57 and 2:14. That turned the six-point deficit to a three-point lead and set the stage for the big, big, big, big, big, big Wildcat victory.
Six bigs, everybody. Mitch Holthus would agree.
Three (plus 1) in the Key
- If Saturday in Fort Worth was cathartic, tonight was simply rewarding. The Cats seem to have accepted what they have to be to win: a team that values defensive possessions even more than offensive ones, that understands when it’s time to slow it down and make the opposition defend for most of the 30-second shot clock, and that knows, whether their shot goes in or not, that they have to get back and value the next defensive possession just as much as the last. Complain about style all you want. If you like toughness, you have to like what you’ve seen out of Bruce’s guys down the stretch of the season.
- Congratulations to Mike McGuirl. After making a splash in his starting lineup debut against Creighton in the NCAA tournament four years ago, it has been an up-and-down journey for Mike. But nobody could ever doubt his commitment or his effort. It’s a team sport, but tonight Mike gets a giant share of the credit for securing this victory. It will be interesting to see whether he decides to take advantage of the opportunity to return for more next year.
- Weber’s teams seem to get one of these improbable wins ever year. After beating OU, is a win over No. 10 West Virginia unthinkable? Tough, sure. But who would have given it a second thought two weeks ago? The Big 12 announced today that the Cats will get another chance for a win, as well: The previously postponed Iowa State game has been rescheduled for March 6. Why not find a way to 5 straight? It would be a crazy cap to a year that saw heartbreak, disappointment, records for futility ,and abject hopelessness not that long ago. How foolish dwelling on those things looks tonight. This sure feels like a stepping stone.
- Bonus: How good is the Big 12, really? Six of the 10 teams are ranked, including three—Baylor (#2), OU (#7), and West Virginia (#10) in the top-10. Oklahoma State received the most votes of any unranked team in the AP poll and was ranked 21st in the Coaches’ poll after upsetting Texas in overtime this weekend. Other than Baylor, do any of those teams really scare anybody?
At West Virginia Saturday, 3 CST. Go Cats!