NORMAN — Oklahoma’s “never-say-die” attitude was the foundation for another comeback victory Saturday afternoon.
The Sooners rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half to seize a 66-61 win over Kansas State in their Big 12 opener at Lloyd Noble Arena.
OU trailed 44-33 with 14:23 remaining and 61-54 with 3:45 to go, but the Sooners did not panic.
“That’s what the coaches preach: You can turn it around,” said Austin Reaves, who hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:39 remaining. “If it’s a 10-point game, you can turn around a game in three possessions. You can hit three straight 3s. So with the talent we have, we feel we’re in any game.
“We’re going to keep grinding and keep playing every possession like Coach said, like it’s our last. And if something good happens, then that’s what happens.”
OU (10-3, 1-0 Big 12) has earned the label “comeback kids” this season.
It’s the fourth time the Sooners have trailed by 10-plus points and gained a victory, more than any other major-conference school. OU is 6-2 this season when trailing at halftime, and the six wins are the most of any NCAA Division I team.
Lon Kruger has coached college basketball for 34 years. While even ugly wins can be celebrated, he knows that his team has to learn from games like this one.
“We talk a lot about playing each possession like it’s the most important one,” Kruger said. “We have to get off to better starts. We have to play 40 minutes. You feel good about the response when we’re down late, but still we’d like to avoid being down late.
“That’s that idea of playing each possession. Wins like this help reinforce a lot of things that we’re after every day at practice. That’s how a team grows and how you make the progress necessary.”
OU only led for 44 seconds of game time until making its final charge at the finish. The Sooners scored the last 12 points of the game.
K-State (7-6, 0-1) used the 3-pointer to keep the Sooners at arm’s length. The Wildcats tied a season high with 12 3s.
Kruger’s change to a 3-2 zone defense during the final 10 minutes changed the game’s dynamic.
K-State struggled with ball movement. The Sooners’ defensive deflections led to points on offense during the comeback.
“At that point, it was anything that changed up their rhythm,” Kruger said. “I thought our guys responded very well to that. They got some deflections out of that.”
The OU coach mentioned that K-State’s Xavier Sneed picking up his fourth foul also was a key factor.
“I thought our activity in the zone was really good. We didn’t rebound really great out of it for three possessions, but otherwise we got some deflections and did a good job with it,” Kruger said.
The Wildcats led 33-30 at intermission and extended their lead to 44-33 before the Sooners began charging back.
Reaves was silent in the first half with an equal amount of turnovers as points (three). But the junior guard did his damage in the second half, scoring 18 of his 21 points, including his key 3-pointer to give the Sooners a 63-61 lead.
“The coaches and the players kept putting me in really good situations. I made shots,” Reaves said.
“(Kristian Doolittle) kept us in the game for the first 30 minutes. If it wasn’t for that, we would have been down maybe 15 late. Doo kept us in it. We kept battling, and our team came up with a really big win.”
Doolittle finished with 19 points (13 in the first half) and 12 rebounds.
Doolittle, Brady Manek (nine points) and Jamal Bieniemy were the only OU players with Big 12 experience before Saturday. This game will help, especially with a Tuesday trip to Texas on the horizon.
”(This game) meant a lot. Coach has been preaching mainly to the people that have never played in a Big 12 game before. Mainly just telling them how physical it was going to be,” Doolittle said. “Our practices leading up to this game were very physical, a lot of contact. You can only simulate so much in practice, so I feel like the new people are handling it very well. They came out ready to play.”