KANSAS CITY — It was but one largely innocuous play in a basketball game of some 150 possessions.
But it turned the tide for Oklahoma State in Wednesday’s first-round Bedlam matchup with Oklahoma, and it just may have saved the Cowboys’ season.
OSU’s 16-point lead had all but disappeared behind a 14-2 Sooners run. Behind 3-pointers from freshmen Trae Young and Brady Manek, OU had heated up from outside and had cut the Cowboys’ edge to a teetering four-point lead.
And it was about to get even worse for OSU as Young dribbled away from traffic and fired a near-perfect fast-break lob pass to Manek over the rim.
That’s when Cowboy senior Mitchell Solomon stepped up, then stepped back and blew up the Sooners’ run by blowing up the alley-oop.
It was one play, but it summed up the game. It was one play, but it was everything in OSU’s 71-60 victory over the Sooners inside the Sprint Center.
“There’s gonna be plays that change the momentum,” said OU coach Lon Kruger, “and that’s one that we didn’t finish.”
OSU (19-13), a team led by three seniors, doesn’t want its season to end and is clearly willing to fight to keep it going. OU (18-13), a team led by freshmen, just as clearly isn’t in that category.
One stat — rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding — illustrated which team wanted it more. Oklahoma State collected 53 rebounds, twice as many as Oklahoma’s 27. The Sooners managed just five offensive rebounds, while the Cowboys had 18.
Who wanted this game more?
The massive disparity in second-chance points — 19-2 in favor of OSU — is exactly what has given the Cowboys a second chance at redeeming this season.
While many who study the brackets project Oklahoma as safely in the Field of 68, O-State’s NCAA Tournament hopes indeed may have rested upon the outcome of Bedlam 3.0.
“We try to make a conscious effort to be the hardest-playing team, 40 minutes a game, and I feel like we accomplished that,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “I think that showed most notably on the stat sheet on the rebounding thing.”
Young led all scorers with 22 points, but Cameron McGriff powered OSU with 18 points and nine rebounds. Jeffrey Carroll, another OSU senior, had 13 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Point guard Kendall Smith, a senior transfer, had 11 points and five rebounds. And Solomon had six points and nine boards.
The Cowboys earned another shot at top-seed and regular-season champion Kansas, who they’ve beaten twice already this season. They meet again on Thursday at 1:30 p.m., and the Jayhawks are without lone big man Udoke Azubuike, who sustained a minor knee injury in Tuesday’s practice.
Boynton said in postgame interviews he hadn’t been made aware of Azubuike’s injury before the game, but would begin planning accordingly.
If the Cowboys do three-peat against the Jayhawks, it would almost certainly push OSU into the NCAA Tournament field, which, by the way, Boynton said was something else he wasn’t concerned with before the game.
“I don’t operate that way,” Boynton said. “ … I just control the things I can control.
“You don’t have to be desperate to have success. You just win and let the rest of it tell its own story.”
Wednesday’s story was about OSU’s effort, intensity, grit and determination against a team that lacked those qualities, and it was personified by Solomon’s game-changing steal.
OU had eaten up most of OSU’s 50-34 lead, and Young had just stolen the ball from Carroll and was dribbling downcourt with his team trailing 52-48. He saw Manek running the floor and did essentially what he’s done all season: threw a perfect pass.
Only, Solomon was ready.
“I saw his man (Solomon) step up and tried to throw a lob,” Young said. “I don’t know what happened, if there was contact or anything like that. It been working all year. Brady goes and gets those. I was surprised he didn’t get that one.”
“I knew they had a fast break so I knew I had to put a stop to it,” Solomon said. “I knew Trae likes to throw lobs, so I kind of baited, like, jabbed (jab-stepped), played fundamental 2-on-1 defense and was able to get a hand on it and got to Kendall going down the court.”
Smith got it to Carroll for a layup, and then Smith finished his own layup on the next trip. Those four points rebuilt Oklahoma State’s lead to 56-48 with 8:14 to play — plenty of time for a Sooner rally, but only if they wanted it bad enough.
Instead, the Cowboys finished the game on a 19-12 run and grabbed 14 of the game’s last 17 rebounds.
“Any time you’re whipped on the boards like that, certainly, they were much more aggressive,” Kruger said. “The stats kind of speak for themselves.”
Boynton said the notion behind his team’s all-out efforts Wednesday was not to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“We came here to win the Big 12 Tournament,” Boynton said. “We’ll worry about whatever is next week whenever next week comes. We knew we could only win the tournament if we won today, and we couldn’t win the tournament today, we had beat Oklahoma today.
“I don’t have to have mindset of getting to the tournament to come out and play hard.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.