NORMAN, Okla. — To pinpoint when the fortunes changed in Saturday’s Big 12 opener between Kansas State and Oklahoma, zero in on the 8:37 mark of the second half.
K-State led 51-46. The Sooners trimmed the deficit to four on a free throw from Austin Reaves, which came after a personal foul on senior forward Xavier Sneed. In between the two free throws, Sneed trotted to the bench, saddled with four fouls. Reaves sank the second, knocking one more point off the Wildcats’ advantage.
Sneed didn’t return for six more minutes. In the time he was off the floor at the Lloyd Noble Center, the Wildcats maintained the lead. But it allowed Reaves to get into a groove.
Ranking sixth in the Big 12 in points per game (16.3) entering Saturday, Reaves had just three points in the first half. He scored five more in the first 10 minutes of the second half. In the final 10, he poured in 13 points, including the go-ahead triple that gave Oklahoma the lead for good, 63-61, with 1:39 to play, in a game the hosts went on to win 66-61.
Afterward, Reaves repeatedly praised head coach Lon Kruger and his teammates for “putting me in really good situations” in the second half. And despite his outsized influence on the outcome, he said it was a team win through and through.
“Coach had been preaching to us all week to all of us who hadn’t played in the Big 12 about how physical it’s going to be, that we’ve got to take every second on the court as if it’s our last,” said Reaves, whose team-high 21 points marked his 12th double-digit effort in 13 games this season. “That’s how fast a game can change in the Big 12. You could be up two and then down eight if you relax for two or three minutes.”
It’s no coincidence, however, that Reaves caught fire when Sneed was glued to the bench. Until he was whistled for his fourth foul, Sneed was Reaves’ primary defender. Reaves started the game 1-for-5 from the field; he ended the game making 5 of his final 6 attempts.
DaJuan Gordon, a true freshman guard for K-State, had to defend Reaves at times given Sneed’s precarious foul situation.
“I thought we had Reaves pretty much under control,” Wildcat head coach Bruce Weber said. “Obviously, not the last five, six minutes where he got cooking. But he made the plays that gave them a chance.”
Reaves scored points in a flurry in the final five minutes, pouring in nine in that span. Weber admits that on Reaves’ go-ahead 3-pointer, “you could have had a push off, maybe, if you go back and watch it.”
“(It) didn’t get called,” Weber said, “so he made the shot, credit to him.”
When Sneed stepped back on the court with 2:06 to go, he didn’t tag Reaves again. That’s because Weber told him not to.
“You don’t want him to foul out,” Weber said. “Reaves is tough. He’s got wiggle, knows how to make plays, knows how to draw fouls. You want to make sure that you’ve got Xavier. We want to have him at the end if it comes down to the last couple of shots. I want to make sure that he’s in the game.”
Even while sitting for six minutes, Sneed still finished with top scoring honors Saturday, totaling 22 points.
“Coach has been running good plays for me to get open,” Sneed said. “My teammates have been finding me in the right spots and I’ve just been knocking down shots. I’ve been staying in the gym, keeping my rhythm.”
Reaves did the same. All the commendation he heaped upon his teammates notwithstanding, he conceded that part of the reason for the uptick in his play in the waning moments of the contest was because he knew someone had to step up.
“Any player in that situation, you know the score at all times,” he said. “Everybody on the team wants to do something to start a run — if it’s diving on the court for a loose ball, getting the offensive rebound. The biggest rebound of the game was when ‘Doo’ (Kristian Doolittle) got his own after he missed a layup with like 30-something seconds left. Everybody wants to do something to help the team win. So yeah, you always think, ‘What can I do to help?’ I just tried to do that.”
Ironically, Reaves might not have been in position to do that had Kruger followed Weber’s lead. Just like Sneed, Reaves ended the game with four fouls. (He picked up his fourth with 4:43 remaining.)
Unlike Weber, Kruger left Reaves on the floor.
It was a matter of trust.
“He’s played a lot of basketball. He knows not to make that reach that might pick up a silly foul,” Kruger said. “He was aware of it and handled that well. Zone might have helped a little bit, in terms of the stretch when he had four fouls. But he handled that great.”
It left Weber to answer what more the Wildcats could have done to try to induce a fifth and final foul from Reaves, rendering the Sooners’ most important player irrelevant in the most important moment.
“I don’t know,” Weber said. “Maybe get to the basket. I think sometimes we settle. ... Some guys have to go to the basket and make them foul us. I guess that would be your only thing — get some guys to go make a play at the basket, hope we can get more free throw opportunities and get them in foul trouble.”