Oklahoma (11-2, 1-0 Big 12) held off a late Kansas State (8-4, 0-1) rally to open conference play with a 71-69 win Saturday night in Norman.
Senior guard Elijah Harkless had 21 points and seven rebounds to lead OU over the Wildcats, despite senior guard Mark Smith scoring 25 points with 16 rebounds for K-State.
Here are five final takeaways from the Sooners’ win:
No Groves, no problem
In his pregame press conference Friday, head coach Porter Moser criticized the Center for Disease Control’s updated COVID-19 policies. The next day, the Sooners announced less than two hours before tip off that they would be missing forwards Tanner and Jacob Groves and freshman guard Bijan Cortes due to health and safety protocols.
Despite not having the trio, who combine to average 19.4 points per game, Oklahoma was still able to squeak past the Wildcats. Alongside Harkless, senior guard Umoja Gibson played a key role, scoring 19 points while making four late free throws to seal the win. Gibson finished 7-for-7 from the free-throw line on the night.
Moser told OU radio announcer Toby Rowland that Jacob has been cleared to return for Tuesday’s game at Baylor. The Sooners will learn Tanner’s status on Sunday and indicated that Cortes likely won’t play against the Bears.
Balanced scoring has been a hallmark of OU’s throughout nonconference play. Each of its five regular starters averages at least nine points per game, but the leading scorer is Tanner Groves at only 14.3 points per game.
Despite Tanner Groves’ absence, the Sooners maintained their balance against Kansas State with Harkless, Gibson, redshirt senior guard Jordan Goldwire, junior forward Jalen Hill and freshman guard C.J. Noland all finishing in double digits. The four starters all played at least 34 minutes with Noland contributing 24. Senior forward Ethan Chargois played 18 minutes and secured nine rebounds but picked up four fouls and failed to score.
“Ethan you can really do a lot of things with too,” Moser said. “Ethan is really good at passing. The thing with Ethan is we gotta keep (him) on the court, because he's super foul prone.
“Ethan is a guy you can really play through. He (got in) foul trouble, we went small and it's something we don't do a lot. The comfortability of going through Tanner — we do all the time. And with Ethan, I'm super comfortable. I thought our offense was really efficient with Ethan in there.”
Because OU found itself with less depth than usual, sophomore center Rick Issanza, freshman guard Alston Mason and senior guard Marvin Johnson combined for the 18 minutes not accounted for by one of the other four starters, Noland or Chargois.
Moser said he will look for Chargois and Issanza to play more minutes going forward if Tanner Groves continues to miss time.
“All of a sudden you lose three guys that have been in your top eight or nine rotation,” Moser told Rowland. “Now you're talking about coming after Christmas too. The conditioning after the Christmas game is always a little bit of an issue and those guys play 35, Goldwire 36 minutes bringing the ball up and having to defend all that stuff Kansas State runs... you have to give them credit.”
Sooners’ defense tested
While the Sooners were able to withstand the late Kansas State comeback — something they didn’t do in their losses to Butler and Utah State — their defense allowed K-State to shoot 9-for-16 from 3-point range in the second half, and 45.5 percent overall. Only UCF had shot better than 40 percent against OU before the Wildcats did.
From the field, Kansas State shot 42.3 percent, weighed down by a poor first half, but it shot 51.9 percent in the second. That was good for the fourth best shooting performance against OU, which fell out of the top 30 to No. 31 nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric following the win.
“I have to give them credit a lot,” Moser said of Kansas State. “I'm gonna watch the tape, they got a lot of those 3s when we were switching one through five and they were ghost screening. We didn’t get into our normal defense. We don't switch one through five a lot because we don't play small a lot, and we had to.”
Harkless clutch again
Harkless has found his role as the key shotmaker at the end of games for the Sooners. He hit a fadeaway 3-point shot to send OU’s Dec. 7 game against Butler to overtime and hit an and-1 floater to give the Sooners a 67-65 lead late against Kansas State. Although Oklahoma eventually fell to Butler, 66-62, Harkless’ late-game playmaking is a vital aspect of OU’s offense.
“I was pretty comfortable,” Harkless said. “My teammates believing in me, telling me to take those shots, and you have everybody in your corner. Just believe in your work, everything will take care of itself.”
Noland steps up
Noland helped fill the scoring void left by the Groves brothers and Cortes. He contributed a career-high 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field. Noland also added three rebounds and a steal while setting a career high in minutes.
“He gave us some scoring punch, 10 points on four shots, really good efficiency,” Moser said. “I think he'll tell you we have to talk about the switching and some of his defensive things. But he was confident, made some really nice basket cuts, a drive to the rim, made a nice 3-point shot. In a game where we needed to find some points, with Tanner out and Bijan kind of gets that ball moving when Jordan’s out, he gave us 10 points.… We needed that.”
Next, Oklahoma will take on No. 1 Baylor at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 4 in Waco on ESPN2.