NORMAN — They all count. That’s the thing.
Who can remember the last time the Jayhawks lost three straight games? Who can remember the best team in the Big 12 taking a swan dive like the Jayhawks have taken?
It’s beside the point.
Because they all count.
Oklahoma beat Kansas 72-66 Saturday afternoon at Lloyd Noble Center.
After three straight losing Sooner seasons, it’s the program’s biggest win since Blake Griffin was filling the joint in 2009, leading OU to a 13-3 conference mark and an Elite Eight appearance, the last time OU even sniffed the postseason.
The first half woke the echoes of Billy Tubbs’ program past, the two teams on a 200-point-between-them pace almost to the second media timeout.
The second half offered the OU-KU series of Kelvin Sampson and Roy Williams, both teams doing anything to buy a bucket and frequently failing.
Just maybe it was the stuff that will mark Lon Kruger’s Sooner tenure. The kinds of things that, years down the line, after another narrow victory over another top-five foe, folks will stop and think to themselves, You know, it all began that February Saturday afternoon against the Jayhawks.
Down the stretch, OU didn’t turn it over, produced sound offensive possessions on one end and strong defensive possessions on the other, creating the kind of calm environment that allowed a freshman reserve, Je’Lon Hornbeak, to score seven straight points that put the game away.
The Jayhawks made it a two-point game, 63-61, before the youngster from Arlington, Texas, knocked down a 3 with 1:18 remaining and followed by hitting front ends of back-to-back one-and-ones before, fouled again, making both tosses, giving OU a 70-66 edge with 16 tics remaining. When Elijah Johnson missed on the other end, it was really over.
The day Kruger was hired and OU athletic director Joe Castiglione organized a rally in his honor at McCasland Field House, Joe C. said an utterly amazing thing, and not just because he refused to use an acronym for the nation.
He said Kruger’s Sooners would fill the arena “every single game” because “OU men’s basketball is on the way to the top in the United States of America.”
Saturday afternoon against the Jayhawks was the first time since it seemed like it might, no matter how remote, be possible.
Thanks to about 1,500 Kansas fans, the place was full. Indeed, when Kevin Young follow-dunked a Jeff Withey miss to begin the game, Lloyd Noble Center felt like Allen Fieldhouse South.
First the Sooners responded, then the fans responded. Then, as time wound down, a different dynamic ensued. Aside from OU’s student section, more Jayhawk than Sooner fans were standing. Like it was too much to bear for that swath of the Sooner Nation in attendance.
They just didn’t have it in them to let go with everything as long as the game could still get away. What energy they spent was saved for makes, misses and whistles. In between, they conserved. Like they didn’t want to get emotional in vain.
It was all perfectly sensible because it’s been so long for this program. It’s been so long since the three-headed monster that was Willie Warren, Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin torpedoed it and made it a loser.
After Saturday, it seems all right.
Better than winning was how the Sooners won.
They never trailed in the second half, but for a while is was like they were trying to, getting points on just 1 of 8 possessions as KU pulled within a point.
That was when OU’s old guard stood up, Romero Osby scoring on back-to-back possessions before Cam Clark scored on back-to-back-to-back possessions, making it 57-49. As they scored, Sam Grooms facilitated.
Another lull was interrupted by a 3-pointer from Amath M’Baye and yet another by a 3-pointer from Steven Pledger. Finally, it was Hornbeak down the stretch.
The gang’s all there.
By the way, the last time Kansas lost three straight was 2005. The last time the Jayhawks lost even two straight was 2006. But the rare Kansas losing streak steals nothing from OU.
“I’m not leaving out of here disgusted with my team,” Jayhawk coach Bill Self said. “We gave a decent effort out there, it just wasn’t good enough.”
Even good enough that the students rushed the floor.
Not even Castiglione predicted that, but they did.
The day OU beat Kansas. The day the Sooners scored the victory that made everything seem possible.
Follow me @clayhorning