MANHATTAN, Kan. — The Sooners have their first road win in the Lon Kruger era.
It came at the expense of Kruger's alma mater in his first game in Manhattan as the opposing coach.
Steven Pledger scored 30 points, and the Sooners overcame foul trouble to post a 63-60 win over No. 22 Kansas State on Saturday night at Bramlage Coliseum.
Kruger said he was more happy for his players to post a gritty road win than to have bragging rights in his old stomping grounds. His players, though, noticed Kruger's purple number 12 jersey hanging from the rafters.
“I took a picture of it,” said forward Romero Osby. “It's a big deal when you're playing for someone whose jersey is retired.”
On a sentimental night for Kruger, a game full of twists and turns was decided when OU point guard Sam Grooms missed an opportunity to add to a 59-58 lead with a 10-second differential on the shot clock and game clock.
Grooms' shot with 15 seconds left didn't hit the rim. K-State's Jordan Henriquez rebounded but Grooms swiped the ball free.
“Coach has been screaming at me to stay engaged no matter what happens,” Grooms said. “I saw him bring the ball down after I shot, what was probably not the best shot. I was thinking in my head I had to get the ball back.”
The Wildcats now were forced to foul. Osby hit two free throws for a 61-58 lead with 9.3 seconds left.
Kruger instructed his team to foul K-State. Henriquez hit both free throws.
Grooms answered by hitting two free throws with 4.8 seconds left. K-State's Rodney McGruder attempted a potential game-tying 22-footer at the buzzer that clanged off the back of the rim.
“The win is great but much more important is I thought we showed a little more toughness, a little more fight, a little more competitiveness,” Kruger said. “We've been growing in that area but we did it against a club that sets the bar for toughness and good, hard play in our league.”
One key was Pledger finally rediscovered his stroke. He was shooting 36 percent in Big 12 play but hit 11-of-17 shots against the Wildcats, including four 3-pointers.
“He needed one of these games to get out of the mindset he was in,” Grooms said. “He's been down on himself a little the past couple of games. Playing the way he did tonight, making the shots he made, was amazing.”
It was a rare conference road win for a program that was 1-19 on the road in Big 12 play the past three seasons, the exception being an overtime win last year at Iowa State.
After watching a 10-point lead evaporate into a 48-45 deficit when their top three scorers were in foul trouble, the Sooners got timely defensive stops, hit some big shots and were 6-for-6 at the line the final 67 seconds.
“This is very big for our confidence,” Pledger said. “It lets us know we can finish these type of games, that we can play with anybody, that we can beat anybody. It's just a matter of us executing in late-game situations.”
Even though Kruger downplayed the win at his alma mater, Grooms said players were aware of what was at stake.
“He might not say it but we knew this meant a lot to him,” Grooms said. “He's modest. But we know he really wanted this win.”
Pledger said the obvious tipoff is Kruger's occasional Freudian slips since he took the OU job in April.
“Sometimes when we're watching film he doesn't say Big 12 he says Big Eight,” Pledger said. “This is his stomping grounds. This is where he used to rock out on the court. It was great to get the win for him.”