NORMAN, Okla. — An instant classic this was not. Points were hard to come by. Simple things such as dribbling and passing seemed complicated. Toughness often meant more than skill.
It was a struggle for both No. 18 Kansas State and Oklahoma on Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center, but the Wildcats emerged from the scrum with a 52-50 victory that ended up feeling beautiful.
“It’s a big win for us,” said junior guard Will Spradling, who scored a team-high 12 points. “We haven’t really had a big road win this year.”
Those are always important. On a day when Kansas lost its first conference game of the season to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse, the win took on additional meaning.
The Wildcats came into the game tied with Oklahoma and Baylor for second in the Big 12, two games behind the Jayhawks. Now they have separation — and a season-sweep — over Oklahoma and sit one game out of the top spot.
K-State (17-4, 6-2 Big 12) never stopped viewing that as the ultimate prize.
“We want to be first,” said senior guard Martavious Irving, who came off the bench to score 10 points.
The Wildcats will be able to challenge their in-state rivals directly in less than two weeks. They may require a better shooting touch than they had Saturday to win the two games in-between, but they couldn’t hope for better defense.
Despite K-State’s offensive woes — it made 37.5 percent of its shots, never led by more than eight and matched a season-low points total — it played strong enough defense to beat nearly any opponent.
The Sooners made 38.8 percent of their shots, connected on three three-pointers and only Romero Osby, who scored 13 points, reached double figures. They also went long stretches without scoring. The longest came at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second.
After Osby hit a jump shot with 6 minutes, 27 seconds remaining before the break, K-State held Oklahoma scoreless on its final nine possessions and took a 28-23 halftime lead. When both teams returned to the floor, the Sooners stayed cold, coming up empty on their next six possessions.
“Tough game from start to finish,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Really physical time from the offensive end. Kansas State did a good job. I thought they were into it and dictated for most of the night with their defense. We had trouble getting separation and trouble scoring.”
Osby finally made a jumper with 15:43 remaining, ending a scoreless drought that lasted nearly 11 minutes.
K-State was unable to stretch its lead while Oklahoma was missing its shots, and was clinging to a 30-25 advantage.
“I thought their defense was about as good as it’s been,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Way better than it was at our place. They were locked in. They fought screens. They hedged hard. They got to shooters. They made everything tough. We hurt ourselves with some questionable shots at different times.
“But when you go on the road, you’ve got to find a way to win. That’s all that matters. Grind it out.”
And grind they did. The Wildcats made enough shots to take a 50-42 lead with 2:52 remaining, but they weren’t able to continue scoring as their focus turned to eating up clock. With each empty possession, the Sooners mounted a comeback.
Sam Grooms took advantage of a careless turnover between Rodney McGruder and Spradling and hit a three-pointer that cut K-State’s lead to 50-48 with 56 seconds remaining. Oklahoma came up with a stop on the other end and tied the game with 13 seconds to go on a driving layup from Grooms.
But the Wildcats were ready for what came next. Angel Rodriguez, who would later say “I think I function better with pressure,” immediately attacked Oklahoma’s defense and got fouled as he went up for a floater in the lane.
With 5.6 seconds remaining, he made two free throws.
“As soon as I blew by my man I knew they were going to foul me,” Rodriguez said. “They are aggressive. They try to make a play and try to block your shot, especially on me because I’m little. I was fortunate to get fouled, go to the free-throw line and make a play.”
Weber had a timeout to use, but never considered using it. He trusted his point guard.
“I told him to push it and see what happens,” Weber said. “We practice that all the time. I think sometimes you call timeout and it gives the defense a chance to set or switch and Lon does a great job of taking things away. We think it is maybe better to go with it.”
The strategy worked perfectly. Oklahoma responded by getting the ball to Grooms near the three-point line, but he was heavily guarded and missed badly as the buzzer sounded.
When it was over, Rodriguez marched into the locker room, changed clothes and started talking about what comes next. After making a game-winning play, he normally would have taken at least a little time to celebrate. This time, he was simply happy K-State survived a taxing game.
“We knew it was going to be a tough one,” Rodriguez said. “We never thought it was going to be easy. It should have been a little easier, but they made a run. We were just fortunate to win.”