NORMAN, Okla. — As Xavier Sneed held the pose on his follow through Saturday, the ball continued sailing toward the basket. Moments later, it found the bottom of the bucket. Three points for Kansas State.
It wasn’t over.
Fouled on the play, Sneed went to the free throw line for one more.
Sneed had a 4-point play, and K-State had a 48-39 lead over Oklahoma with 11:28 remaining. It felt like a defining moment in Saturday’s contest — the Big 12 opener for both teams — at the Lloyd Noble Center.
Only it wasn’t.
The Sooners roared back to squeak out a 66-61 win over the Wildcats.
“Tough loss,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said during his postgame press conference. “We led a lot of the game. Our guys did a lot of good things. Played a lot of young guys. But we just didn’t find a way to win.”
It was an all-too-familiar result for K-State (7-6, 0-1 Big 12) this season. Five of the Wildcats’ six setbacks have come by single digits. In two of those defeats (Pittsburgh and Mississippi State), just like Saturday, they led by at least 10 points at one juncture. And in three of those losses (Pittsburgh, Mississippi State and Saint Louis), K-State was on top of the scoreboard within five minutes of the final buzzer.
Saturday’s loss adds one more to all of those lists.
This time, K-State unraveled in the last 3:45.
Down by seven (61-54) at that point, Oklahoma lowered the boom. The Sooners (10-3, 1-0) scored the final 12 points of the game to run their win streak to three and improve to 6-0 at home this season.
“It’s frustrating. It wasn’t shots as much as turnovers,” Weber said of the scoreless stretch to conclude the contest. “I’m not sure, but we might have only had one turnover the first 16, 17 minutes of the second half, and then we had three or four cautious ones, casual ones down the stretch, which meant empty possessions.”
One of those throwaways came on an ill-advised entry pass by Cartier Diarra. Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves swiped the ball away, starting a fast break capped by a tomahawk jam by Brady Manek that made for the loudest ovation from the home crowd all day.
“I told Carti, ‘Instead of trying to make that little bounce pass, I’d rather take a chance on a 35-foot 3,’” Weber said. “At least then, we get a chance for a rebound.”
The Wildcats won a few scrambles for loose balls; they didn’t win enough of them, however. Oklahoma outrebounded K-State 42-37. It’s an area where the Sooners had struggled of late, entering Saturday on the wrong end of the rebounding margin four times in the past five outings.
“We won the rebounding battle this game,” said Sooner guard Kristian Doolittle, who scored 19 points for the victors. “I feel like that played a pivotal role in us winning the game.”
That supremacy on the boards combined with a few other factors to ultimately doom the Wildcats to yet another narrow defeat.
One was Sneed, who scored a game-high 22 points, going to the bench with 8:37 remaining after picking up his fourth personal foul.
“Of course it’s my fault. I’ve got to stop fouling,” he said. “I’ve got to be better on the court (with my) on-ball defense as well. But I’ve got to trust in my guys out there to do the right things. It just didn’t happen today.”
Weber said he didn’t regret calling Sneed to the sideline.
“Well if you get him back in (too quickly) and he fouls out, now you don’t have him down the stretch,” Weber said. “You just kept hoping we’d hold on.”
Part of the reason they didn’t “hold on?” Oklahoma’s decision to employ a zone defense late in the game. Sooner head coach Lon Kruger, a K-State great, said he dialed up a seldom-used look for his team to try to disrupt his alma mater’s rhythm.
“I thought our guys responded very well to that, got some deflections out of it,” he said. “Sneed getting his fourth foul didn’t hurt us any at all, because he had it going there at that time. So the guys, our activity I thought in the zone was really good. Didn’t rebound great out of it for two or three possessions, but otherwise, we got some deflections and did a good job with it.”
Conversely, K-State did not. Much to Weber’s chagrin.
“They played zone, what, maybe one time all year? But they don’t practice zone, either, so we should have been able to attack that a little better,” Weber said. “We got very cautious against the zone. I kept yelling, ‘Push it! Flatten it out! Get it going!’ (We were) a little bit stunned, a little cautious at the end.”
The opposite of Reaves’ mentality after intermission.
A transfer from Wichita State, Reaves had just three points in the first half; he erupted for 18 in the second half. Nine of his points came in the final 5:06, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:39 to go, putting the Sooners on top 63-61.
“As you could tell, I was in a good rhythm,” said Reaves, whose 21 points led the way for Oklahoma in Saturday’s win. “The players and coaches kept putting me in a really good situation to make good plays and that’s what I tried to do: make good plays.”
K-State made its share of positive plays, too. Keeping with the theme of the season, however, all too often, those don’t occur in crunch-time of tight-knit affairs. Saturday was merely the latest chapter in a book rife with frustration and futility.
Ever the optimist, Weber is trying to keep his club upbeat with the gauntlet of league play staring it in the face.
“It’s tough. All I can do is ... it’s a long season,” he said. “Eighteen games in this league. You’ve got to keep battling. You’ve got to come back. You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to help them. They’re young. (We have) got to stay together. That’s the most important thing.”