Then in the final four minutes, they tried everything the could to keep him on it.
As much as Trae Young vs. Devonte’ Graham set the storyline coming in — and the two point guards wound up making a big difference in the outcome — it was the Azubuike-Matt Freeman matchup that largely wound up deciding the game.
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Freeman played just 110 seconds before fouling out, but helped turn the tide as the No. 12 Sooners knocked off the Jayhawks 85-80 in front of a packed house at Lloyd Noble Center.
When Freeman was called for his first foul nine seconds after he entered the game, the crowd groaned as Azubuike walked to the free-throw line.
A few moments later when he walked to the bench, his service to the game done for the night after his fifth foul, the crowd roared in approval.
Lon Kruger’s “Hack-A-Dok” strategy worked perfectly, even if he didn’t much want to draw attention to it afterward.
Azubuike missed all six of his free-throw attempts coming off of Freeman’s fouls — two front-end of bonus free throws and then two sets of double-bonus free throws. Each time, the Sooners grabbed the rebound and got the ball going the other way.
The strategy didn’t lead directly to many points — only one Rashard Odomes free throw resulted directly from points on possessions coming off of those Azubuike missed free throws — but it turned the tide of the game.
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“We definitely needed those,” Christian James said of those extra possessions. “Coach had a great strategy for that to get us a couple of possessions back. I feel like we capitalized on that.”
Freeman walked off the court with the Sooners still trailing, but the strategy to attack Azubuike had shifted the momentum.
“Kansas is the best at scoring late — late-game situations,” Kruger said, trying to deflect attention away from his coaching decision. “It worked out fine. More importantly, our guys made shots on the other end.”
In the moments after the final of Azubuike’s seventh second-half missed free throws, James and Brady Manek hit 3-pointers that lifted the Sooners to the win.
After the game, Kansas coach Bill Self, the Edmond native who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September, said that he’d made the wrong decision in leaving Azubuike into the game when it came to winning Tuesday’s game, saying he wanted to show confidence in his player.
That performance was an exaggerated example of the decrease in efficiency that has plagued Young since Big 12 play began. He had been taking more shots per game in league play yet shooting only 39.5 percent from the field and turning the ball over 7.6 times per game as opposing defenses have face-guarded him, trapped ball screens and generally done everything in their power to make someone else beat them.
But Self was outdueled in this one by a coach who figures to one day join Self in the Hall.
Azubuike looked like he would be the story in another way coming out of halftime, taking over the game early in the second half.
He scored eight points in the first 3:25 after halftime to help the Jayhawks quickly turn a two-point halftime deficit — that had been as big as 10 late in the first half — into an eight-point Kansas lead as Oklahoma had no answer for the stout 7-footer.
But Kruger and the Sooners first found ways to keep Azubuike from ripping them to shreds in the middle then put Azubuike in the place where he’d be least effective as his free-throw percentage dipped to 37.5.
Young’s brilliance for much of the season has taken plenty of the focus away from Kruger’s decision-making especially given the free reign Young is given on the offensive end.
Tuesday, though, when his team needed every bit of advantage it could get against the program that’s dominated the conference for much of its existence, Kruger showed his chops once again.
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Every time Trae Young has done something great this year — and that’s been pretty often, as he has been far and away the best player in college basketball — people have found ways to pick his game apart.
Kruger said he wants Young to keep his aggressiveness, though he wants him to avoid careless turnovers and be sure to get his teammates involved. While Young leads the nation in assists, his numbers have sagged slightly of late.
A career-high 48 points in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State? Sure, but he did that on a hugely inefficient 39 shots. An NCAA record 22 assists in a nonconference game before Christmas? Yeah, but he had 12 turnovers in a game that mattered much more, when Oklahoma got smoked at Kansas State. Think he’s the next Steph Curry? Well, the secret to Steph’s magic isn’t the stats but instead the fact he plays on one of the most team-centric basketball dynasties ever put together.
The implication is Trae Young is all stats (he’s leading college basketball in points and assists) and much less substance (going into Tuesday night’s game against Kansas, Oklahoma had lost two in a row and was sitting at an unremarkable 4-3 in the Big 12).
But after Tuesday night, you can no longer pick Trae Young’s game apart and come away anything other than floored.
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There was a great basketball lesson in Young’s performance Tuesday as Oklahoma beat Kansas, 85-80, giving us one more reason why this Big 12 Conference is going to be the most exciting conference in basketball for the next six weeks. Young played better by doing less, and Oklahoma was the better team because it.
In what could be considered a must-win game for Oklahoma’s chances of staying in the Big 12 race and in contention for a top NCAA Tournament seed, Young played within himself. He scored 26 points on nine shots — that’s just about the most efficient game a player can have — and he dished out nine assists. He was scarred from his 39-shot circus performance against Oklahoma State, and he vowed not to take a three until the second half. His first three didn’t come until nearly five minutes into the second half; it was from Steph Curry range, and he nailed it.
The most important plays of Young’s night came late, after Oklahoma had employed the annoying but effective Hack-A-Udoka-Azubuike strategy (sublimely dubbed “Poke-A-Doke” by @JayhawkTalk on Twitter) to get back into the game. With a bit over a minute left, Kansas’ Devonte Graham missed a three, and Young rebounded it and brought it up the court. Everyone in the building assumed the Trae Young Show was about to take over. Young duked and dodged and drove toward the hoop — then rocketed a gorgeous pass to a wide-open Christian James in the corner, who buried the three to go up 82-80.
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It should be noted that James had been 0-for-6 from three against Oklahoma State, yet his teammate still trusted him with the biggest shot of the game.
On Oklahoma’s next possession, and with the clock winding down, freshman Brady Manek moved to set a screen for Young — but then the slick-shooting Manek slipped the screen, and two Kansas defenders swarmed to Young. Young swung the ball over to a wide-open Manek, who launched a three that put away the game. Both of Young’s passes were dead-on perfect, and together they gave Oklahoma its fourth win against a top 10 team this season.
“This is how I’m going to continue to play — I liked how I played today,” Young said in the postgame interview. “It makes everyone’s confidence go up.”
Trae Young is going to be the story every time he sets foot on the court the rest of this season, but the best version of Trae Young is when he makes his teammates valued supporting characters in that story. This is what Trae Young looks like at his best: not jacking up 39 shots, not forcing 19 threes, not trying to be the superhero for a team that’s not nearly as talented as he is. He is at his best when he tries to do less for himself and more for his teammates. This is what an NBA team will want to see, too, when they inevitably use a top-five pick on him in this June’s draft.
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And this is also the version of Trae Young that turns Oklahoma team from a one-man band called the Trae Young Show into something that’s very different, and something that’s much more exciting: a legit Final Four team.
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