MANHATTAN — – At this rate, Lon Kruger won’t be greeted with smiles and applause at Bramlage Coliseum much longer.
Though the former Kansas State basketball player and coach has contributed so much to his alma mater that his name and number hang from the rafters, he has been an undeniable thorn in the Wildcats’ side lately.
Over the past 13 months, his teams have defeated K-State three times. As the new coach at Oklahoma, he has beaten K-State twice in the past two weeks, with the Sooners’ 63-60 victory over the No. 22 Wildcats on Saturday being the most frustrating to date.
Not only did the defeat squash all the momentum K-State (15-5, 4-4 Big 12) built by winning its previous three games, it lost ground in the conference standings just when the race for a league championship was beginning to open up.
And unlike a loss at Oklahoma two weeks ago, when K-State coach Frank Martin benched a handful of players for poor practice habits, the Wildcats had a full lineup and a loud home crowd. But none of that mattered.
“You can’t lose at home,” Martin said. “You can’t. If you want to compete for a conference championship, you can’t lose at home. We had a great opportunity today to solidify ourselves as a top-third part of the league somewhere and we gave one away.”
K-State reached that result by playing inconsistent defense, struggling on the glass and turning the ball over 20 times. It also shot poorly from the outside and missed 14 of 17 three-pointers.
Mostly, though, it had few answers for Kruger’s coaching strategy, which featured an emphasis on alley-oop dunks off backdoor cuts and taking smart shots. There is a reason Kruger has been successful for 25 years as a college coach and owns a 4-2 record against K-State. He showed it off Saturday, helping Oklahoma win its first true road game.
“The win is great, but much more important is that we showed a little more toughness, a little more fight, a little more competitiveness than we have,” Kruger said. “We have been growing in that area, but I’m really happy to see them step up and do the things they did tonight against the club that I think sets the bar for toughness and good, hard play in the league.”
Kruger downplayed the win on a personal level, saying it was nice to see old friends but that he didn’t think much about the opponent was while the game was going.
But his players thought plenty about their surroundings.
“It meant a lot for me,” said OU’s Sam Grooms, who scored four points. “My coach was a big-time player. You come back to his environment, his old stomping grounds, you want to win for him so you can have a little bit of bragging rights.”
Added Steven Pledger: “Sometimes in film and stuff he doesn’t say Big 12, he says Big Eight. This is his stomping grounds. This is where he used to walk around on the court. This is great.”
Pledger, a junior guard who leads Oklahoma in scoring, did most of the damage. He sank 11 of 17 shots on his way to a game-high 30 points and had a memorable performance.
Whenever the Sooners needed a big shot, he was there to make it. First, he drained a three-pointer at the end of the first half to give Oklahoma a 34-28 advantage and then he made back-to-back threes moments after K-State had taken a 51-49 lead with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining on a three from Martavious Irving.
The game still went down to the wire, with Rodney McGruder launching an open three-pointer from deep at the buzzer that would have forced overtime, but Pledger swung the game in Oklahoma’s favor for good during that stretch.
“We had to make his touches harder,” said McGruder, who scored a team-high 19 points. “He was just catching the ball wherever he wanted to and was able to get open looks. You can’t let a shooter do that. You’ve got to make it hard on him.”
Every time the Wildcats pulled to within a single possession late, as they did when Will Spradling made a driving layup with just under a minute to go, Oklahoma was ready to make two free throws and intentionally send K-State to the foul line instead of giving up the chance of a tying three-pointer.
Other than McGruder, only Angel Rodriguez scored in double figures (10). Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez, who made a key turnover to give OU the ball back in the final minute, both scored nine.
K-State had some of the same problems two weeks ago against Oklahoma. Against Kruger, a man who knows K-State as well as anyone, it was hard to make adjustments.