The message from Kansas coach Bill Self to his team was simple: You played lousy for 20 minutes and you’re still in the game, tailing Oklahoma by just two points at halftime.
Quite the compliment, in a roundabout way — and an odd but effective way to provide some confidence.
The sixth-ranked Jayhawks leaned on that message throughout the second half Saturday, turning their showdown with the short-handed Sooners into a nip-and-tuck game that went down to the end. David McCormack hit the clinching short hook shot with 12.8 seconds to go, giving him 17 points and Kansas a hard-earned 63-59 victory.
“When coaches say they didn’t play well,” Self said, “it makes it look like you’re not giving the other team credit. I think Oklahoma was prepared and had a lot to do with us not playing well, but I thought we absolutely stunk the first half.”
As for the second?
“You know,” Self said, “considering we didn’t really make any free throws and didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, we came out and played better in the second half. ... It’s a pretty good win considering they got easy stuff and we didn’t.”
Ochai Agbaji added 14 points and Jalen Wilson had nine points and 11 rebounds, helping the Jayhawks (10-2, 4-1 Big 12) avoid back-to-back losses in Allen Fieldhouse for the first time since their first season under Roy Williams in 1988-89.
The Sooners (6-4, 2-3), playing without Brady Manek and Jalen Hill because of COVID-19 protocols, took a 57-56 lead when Austin Reaves hit a jumper from the free-throw line with 2 1/2 minutes to go. But McCormack scored over Oklahoma’s Kur Kuath to give Kansas the lead back, and Wilson’s 3-pointer made it 61-57 with 1:26 to go.
Oklahoma had a chance when Kuath dunked Alondes Williams’ miss with 37 seconds left, and coach Lon Kruger elected to play defense rather than foul. But after working the shot clock down, McCormack got his clinching shot to go.
“Wish we could have held it off,” Reaves said, “but it’s sports. Things happen.”
Reaves had 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Sooners, who have lost 20 straight to the Jayhawks in the Phog. Williams and De’Vion Harmon added nine points apiece.
“Both teams played their tails off,” Kruger said. “We have to keep getting better and I think today will help us do that, even though we’re extremely disappointed we didn’t finish it off.”
Kansas was playing at home for the first time since Texas delivered a 25-point walloping last week, matching the most lopsided win by an opponent in the 65-year history of Allen Fieldhouse. And almost from the start, there were signs the Jayhawks — still missing backup guard Bryce Thompson to a back injury — were in for another tough afternoon.
They committed a flurry of early turnovers, including six by Wilson in the first half alone. They struggled again from the 3-point line. They were even edged on the boards, where Kansas historically has been tough to beat.
If not for an 11-0 run by the Jayhawks midway through the first half, the Sooners would have enjoyed quite the halftime cushion. But a lull of their own allowed Kansas to get back in the game, and it took Reaves converting Tyon Grant-Foster’s turnover in the final 15 seconds into a layup at the other end to give the Sooners a 33-31 advantage.
Despite going 8 1/2 minutes without a field goal, the Jayhawks were still tied 49-all with just over 5 minutes remaining.
Garrett and Wilson, both of whom struggled to get shots to go, began to come through in crunch time. Garrett’s driving layup gave Kansas a 56-55 lead, and Wilson drained a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 61-57 and provide a cushion.
McCormack provided the baby hook moments later to seal the win.
“Coach always says that real teams grow as the season goes on and that’s definitely how were doing,” he said afterward. “We know how each other plays, now we just have to play to each other’s strengths and how coach wants us to play.”
Oklahoma announced Manek and Hill would miss the game about 45 minutes before tipoff. Elijah Harkless started in place of Manek, who is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.2 points per game. Manek and Hill, who is averaging 3.7 points off the bench, must undergo another series of COVID-19 tests before being cleared to return to the team.
Oklahoma: Reaves was 7 of 14 from the field but just about everybody else struggled to find their shots — Harkless was 2 of 8 and finished with five points. The Sooners also got into foul trouble late in the game.
Kansas committed 16 turnovers that the Sooners turned into 17 points. They also were just 11 of 19 from the foul line. Both of those stats usually lead to losses, but the Jayhawks managed to make enough plays down the stretch.
The Sooners return home to face TCU on Tuesday. The Jayhawks visit Oklahoma State the same night.