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OU men's basketball: Depleted Sooners forge 'new standard of competitiveness' in close loss to No. 6 Kansas

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Elijah Harkless

OU junior guard Elijah Harkless defends Jayhawks forward Jalen Wilson during the Sooners' game at Kansas Jan. 9.

The Sooners were down just 58-57 in a back-and-forth matchup against No. 6 Kansas with little over a minute left in the second half Saturday afternoon. 

At the time, Oklahoma seemed primed for an upset-victory that would snap a winless road streak at Allen Fieldhouse that’s lasted since 1993. Instead, Kansas forward Jalen Wilson caught a pass and hit a three next to the ‘K’ in the Jayhawks court logo. His deep make was the nail-in-the-coffin for the Sooners’ upset hopes on Saturday afternoon.

Though OU was down four points with 10 seconds left, senior guard Austin Reaves tried to answer with a three of his own in a desperation attempt that didn’t fall. The Sooners (6-4, 2-3 Big 12) succumbed to the Jayhawks (10-2, 4-1), 63-59, continuing OU’s near-three-decade drought in Lawrence.

“They had a big shot,” OU head coach Lon Kruger said regarding Wilson’s three. “Anytime you make a three in the last couple minutes it’s gonna be a big shot.”

“I thought they made a couple of big buckets there late to maintain that margin, and that was the difference in the ballgame.”

Oklahoma’s demise Saturday was a tale of short-handedness. The Sooners were without their second-leading scorer in senior forward Brady Manek, and also sophomore forward Jalen Hill, limiting the depth of their roster. OU struggled to find offense, and bench players had to step into bigger roles. 

The Sooners found out Manek and Hill would miss the game before practice on Jan. 8 — just a day before Saturday’s contest — due to COVID-19 protocols. Kruger deployed a four-guard lineup in response, with 6-foot-5 figures Reaves and senior Alondes Williams its tallest members other than redshirt senior forward Kur Kuath. Meanwhile, Kansas had two starters standing at least 6-foot-8.

“It just limits what we can run,” Kruger said. “Everything that we run offensively is with (Manek) or (Hill) at that stretch-four spot. So our menu of things to run out there was pretty short.”

Junior guard Elijah Harkless stepped into the starting lineup for the first time this season in place of Manek. Essentially playing the power forward position, he excelled in a season-high 38 minutes, and hit a clutch 3-point shot in the second half to bring the game within two points. Harkless also added two steals and a block.

With increased contributions needed, Williams attempted a season-high 13 shots, Kuath made his first-career three on three attempts and even redshirt freshman forward Rick Issanza offered relief late in the first half.

Perhaps the most positive takeaway from the tough loss was the play of Reaves, who scored 20 points and added nine rebounds in 39 minutes of play. Kruger added Reaves has “shouldered a lot this season,” but he was efficient all game.

“It’s just the next man up mentality. … You’ve always got to have that next man up mentality and just figure it out, honestly,” Reaves said of OU’s rotation without Manek and Hill. “ You play to people’s strengths and do what you can do to help get wins.”

The Sooners had a season-high 10 steals, with 17 points off turnovers. Nine of the 10 takeaways came in the first half, which helped OU lead 33-31 at the break. Wilson, the Jayhawks’ leading scorer, had just nine points on four shots while being guarded most of the game by Reaves. 

In Oklahoma’s now-past three-game stretch against Top-10 opponents, the Sooners have managed to hold then-No. 9 West Virginia and Kansas to under 70 points in both contests, which is a testament to defensive growth. With the Sooners’ nightmarish stretch of high-ranked games over, OU has a chance to get back in the win column with its next matchups against TCU (9-4, 2-3) and Oklahoma State (8-3, 2-3).

All in all Kruger was pleased with his team’s performance Saturday. In typical Kruger fashion, the 35-year coaching veteran stayed positive, giving an uplifting speech to the team in the locker room after the game.

“Dadgummit, you guys feel it now,” Kruger said in the postgame speech posted to Twitter. “You feel what you’ve got to do in the next 14 games. I’m proud of ya’, and that was a fight (that could) go either way … that was good and I hate that you don’t feel the satisfaction of winning.

“But you know what, you feel something you haven’t felt before in terms of a new standard of competitiveness. … But we’re gonna benefit from this. We’re gonna benefit from this a lot.”

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