By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
WACO, Texas — After Amath M’Baye made his third-straight shot Wednesday night, the grin on his face widened. The same feeling shot through Steven Pledger after his first 3-pointer swished through the net.
It was their night and because of it, Oklahoma was on its way to a huge road win over Baylor. The feeling was still there after the Sooners held on for a 74-71 victory at the Ferrell Center.
Both scored a season-high 20 points to lead the Sooners (14-5, 5-2 Big 12) to their biggest victory thus far. Both knew they had broken out of offensive slumps in the process.
For Pledger, it was his first 20-point game of the season and the first time this year he played like one of the Big 12 Conference’s best shooters.
“It’s been a while,” Pledger admitted after going 6 for 12 from the field, 3 for 7 from 3-point range and 5 for 7 from the free-throw line. “I needed one, and it came at a great time.”
It coincided with M’Baye displaying a full offensive arsenal. The junior forward went 9 for 12 from the field in a dominant performance.
“I felt good. I’ve had games where I’ve felt better, but tonight I felt like my old self,” he said. “I put points on the board. I was happy to see all the work I’ve been putting in paying off.”
In truth, they helped the Sooners make the game look easy for the first 30 minutes.
Baylor was on the ropes most of the night. M’Baye and Pledger helped OU go on a 15-2 run late in the first half that built a 38-26 halftime lead.
“The guys did a really good job of moving the ball and setting good screens for each other,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “The timing was good, shots came in rhythm, and it was great to see Pledger step up there and knock down shots. It was good to see guys set the tone.”
Baylor (14-6, 5-2) was in panic mode most of the night. The Sooners, who shot 52.7 percent (29 for 55) didn’t cool off until midway through the second half.
The only reason the Bears, who shot 37.3 percent (28 for 75) stayed in the game was forward Isaiah Austin. The 7-foot freshman scored 17 points and collected 22 rebounds. Both of his totals came, mostly, off of put-backs.
“Austin was such a big factor on the offensive boards,” Kruger said. “We just couldn’t keep him away from the ball.”
Yet, the biggest plays by a freshman in the final minutes belonged to OU’s Buddy Hield.
OU led the final 36 minutes, but the Bears had whittled OU’s lead down to five points with 3:29 to go. Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, who scored 17 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, was a constant ball of energy.
His driving layup brought the crowd back into the game. Hield silenced it with a 3-pointer from the wing to put OU back up by eight. Seconds later, Pledger picked up a steal and converted a 3-point play to put OU back up by 11.
“That was a time I wanted to step up and show the coaches I could be on the court the last few minutes, which I did,” said Hield, who finished with nine points. “I got a couple opportunities.”
The next one came with 66 seconds left. OU’s lead was down to one by then. Hield lifted it back up to three with a driving layup.
Baylor had chances to tie, but OU warded them all off to get an NCAA Tournament resumé-building victory that moved the Sooners into a tie for second in the Big 12 standings with January coming to a close.
“Anytime you can win on the road, you feel good about it,” Kruger said. “Any win against the very good Baylor club makes it better.”
Getting two essential players to break out of offensive shells was the icing on the cake.
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