By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma guard Steven Pledger saw the mob running toward him, but instinct told him not to flee.
“I turned around and everyone was rushing to me. So I started jumping, too,” he said.
The Sooners’ 72-66 victory over No. 5 Kansas unleashed that kind of emotion early Saturday evening at Lloyd Noble Center. A dormant basketball program and its fanbase met at center court to celebrate the Sooners’ first victory over a top-10 team since 2009 and the first over a team ranked in the top five since 2006.
There was a lot of “first since” after Saturday’s victory.
The most important for OU was, the first time since its Jan. 24 win over Baylor, that OU actually shot the ball well, which happened to coincide with its last victory.
The Sooners (15-7, 6-4 Big 12) were an energetic, disciplined bunch that didn’t suffer through many offensive lulls. They were aggressive from the opening tip for the final 34 1/2 minutes.
“That’s always our goal every game, to try to be more active and make it mean more to us than it does the other team. Kansas always has energy,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “Kansas coach (Bill) Self does a great job. They’ve been doing that for years, having great energy. But we wanted to come out and set the tone ourselves, stay within our own element and play as hard as we could.”
The Sooners did that by getting forward Romero Osby and Steven Pledger going early. It was a 180-degree turn from what happened two weeks ago when the teams met at Kansas.
Osby struggled getting shots to fall over Jayhawk center Jeff Withey. Pledger just couldn’t get shots up.
It was a different game at Lloyd Noble Center.
Osby scored 17 points and was 6 for 8 from the field and 4 for 5 from the free-throw line.
“A lot of people have been asking me about the game we played up there. I dind’t play particularly well,” Osby said. “I was kind of down on myself and frustrated with myself. Coach told me, ‘Hey, you’re not going to make every shot. Don’t worry about it, just stay in the gym.’ That’s what I did. I had a lot of opportunities to drive him today because I made my first few jump shots, which is how you have to play against him. It ended up working out in my favor.”
Pledger was 6 for 14 on the day and just 2 for 7 from 3-point range. However, his last basket was a 3-pointer with 3:51 left, which pushed the Sooners’ lead back up to 63-59.
“I just tried to keep my feet moving and my hands ready. That’s been a big problem for me this year,” Pledger said. “I haven’t been ready for many passes. I just tried to stay ready for everything.”
OU didn’t have any idea what to expect from Kansas. It was ranked No. 2 in the country two weeks ago, but arrived in Norman smarting from back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and TCU.
Kansas coach Bill Self went ballistic after the Jayhawks’ loss to TCU on Wednesday, calling his team one of the worst in the program’s storied history.
The tone was different on Saturday. This was an even battle in just about every way imaginable. Both teams had 35 rebounds. OU shot 44.8 percent (26 for 58). Kansas shot 46.3 percent (25 for 54).
Ben McLemore scored 15 points to lead Kansas (19-4, 7-3 Big 12). Withey added 14 and Elijah Johnson added 10.
“I’m not leaving out of here disgusted with my team at all. We actually played better today,” Self said. “We played a good team today. They shot the heck out of the basketball.”
Cameron Clark was the only other Sooner in double digits, but OU got a huge performance from freshman guard Je’lon Hornbeak in the final 100 seconds. All seven of his points came on a 3-pointer and 4-of-6 free-throw shooting in the final minute.
“I like being at the free-throw line at the end. Just to know the team is looking for you to make that big shot right there. I missed two. I’m not really happy about that. They went in and out on me,” Hornbeak said. “But the last two, I knew exactly where I needed to put the ball. I was happy we got up four, got a comfortable lead.”
The last two came with 16 seconds left. By then, OU’s student section had already mapped its route to center court. As freshman guard Buddy Hield stole the ball one last time from Johnson, the tidal wave started to crash.
The Sooners’ rebuilding project had a victory that went well beyond the foundation phase.
“Any time you beat Kansas, you feel very good about it. I’m most happy for the players and the fans,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “Spontaneous celebrations are hard to put a value on.”
Saturday, it seemed priceless.