NORMAN, Okla. – When the clock clicked to triple zeroes and the scoreboard report was Oklahoma 85, Kansas 80, the ball was in Trae Young’s hands. Mr. Number One in usage rate, the ball is always in his hands, right?
Near midcourt, the Sooners’ freshman spiked it emphatically and the apex nearly reached the scoreboard. Young’s stoic masked slipped away for that celebratory moment. And perhaps there was a bit of “take that, critics.”
Trae Young walks the tightrope and hits ANOTHER deep 3. pic.twitter.com/awgB8FkiTi
— ESPN (@espn) January 24, 2018
To paraphrase Shakespeare, that veteran scribe, the last few days have turned into burying Trae Young instead of praising him. In two road losses at Kansas State and Oklahoma State, Young put up big numbers – including a total of 19 turnovers – and the Sooners lost twice. Young told ESPN.com’s Myron Medcalf that “people forget I’m still just 19.” In the maelstrom of a Big 12 game, in 40 minutes of mental and physical pressure, even the best players can lose their way.
“I was just overly aggressive at OSU,” Young said Tuesday night about 30 minutes after the game went final. He launched 39 shots in Saturday’s overtime loss in Stillwater and that number on the box score made plenty of television and internet analysts question if Young had become caught up in playing the star.
Against the Jayhawks, Young attempted a season-low nine shots and only three from 3-point land. He went the entire first half without firing off a long-range missile. Young’s first triple splashed home with 15:26 remaining.
“I just, tonight, wanted to manage the game,” said Young, who finished with 26 points and nine assists in 40 minutes. “Just showing that I can manage the game and get my teammates involved and get them involved early.”
Meet Trae Young – the nation’s leader in scoring and assists – game manager.
“Kid played great,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Young. “He got 26 points on nine shots. He was very under control and seemed to make the vast majority of right plays for his team.”
Former Indiana coach Tom Crean, who was the analyst for the ESPN telecast, said that with Young injects the ball with energy with his passing.
“My opinion, that was Trae Young’s most effective game,” he said. “He took what the defense was giving him. He showed his maturity against a very tough defense.”
Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham, an All-American candidate, spent much of the night harassing Young. That defensive workload had an impact on Graham’s offense. The Jayhawks’ leading scorer had 11 points (and nine assists) but was just 4-of-19 from the field and missed eight of his nine 3-point attempts.
Oklahoma had trailed for 18 minutes of the second half and was down 80-79 when Young used a screen from Khadeem Lattin to drive down the left side of the lane. There was no shot opportunity, but Young was under control and he spotted Christian James open in the right corner. James had made a 3-pointer off a Young assist to force overtime against TCU in a game the Sooners had won. With 69 seconds to play, James’ three splashed home for the lead. After KU’s Svi Mykhailiuk missed a corner three, Young found an open Brady Manek after a slip screen; his three provided the final score.
“I had no doubt when he shot that ball it was going to go in,” Young said of James. “I have tremendous confidence in all my teammates.”
Oklahoma had the chance for those big 3-pointers thanks to an unusual chain of events. Some call it crunch time. Magic Johnson like to call it “winnin’ time.” Regardless of the semantics, Kansas has excelled at closing games. The Jayhawks had a six-point lead with seven minutes to play but scored on just two of their last 12 possessions.
Lon Kruger had a brilliant strategy. It was dirty. Unwatchable. But brilliant.
— CJ Moore (@CJMooreHoops) January 24, 2018
Sooners coach Lon Kruger said Kansas “is the best a scoring in late-game situations. He decided that if the Jayhawks were going to win, sophomore center Udoka Azubuike would have to make free throws. Azubuike who made 4-of-5 field goal attempts and leads the nation in FG percentage (77 percent) is as inaccurate from the line as he is accurate from point-blank range. He entered the game making 41.1 percent from the line.
OU went to the Hack-A-Doke strategy. Sooners sophomore big Matt Freeman played two minutes and fouled out as he kept sending Azubuike to the line. He missed the front end of two one-and-ones and four free throws in the two-shot bonus.
“Lon, give him credit,” Self said of his Oklahoma counterpart. “That was a great strategy, to do that with Udoka.”
All’s fair in strategy and victory in the Big 12. Crean said it changed the momentum of the game.
Self said that he considered replacing Azubuike with sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, who had eight points in 17 minutes. “I asked him if he wanted to be in and he said, ‘Oh yeah,’” Self said. I really thought he’d make them. I didn’t think he’d make every one, I thought he’d make 50 percent. It was a bad decision. It was on me for this game. If I had it to do all over again, I may have done it differently. But I’ve never believed that you take out one of your best players because you show him you don’t have confidence in him. So, I kept him in there.”
Oklahoma’s victory kept first-place Kansas in touch with the rest of the league. With the midway point of conference play nearing, the Jayhawks could have had a two-game lead had they won. Now, KU’s margin is one and – following Saturday’s Big 12-SEC challenge home game against Texas A&M – its next Big 12 game is a Big Monday tilt at Kansas State. The Wildcats have won three consecutive games and will be geeked up to avenge their one-point loss in Lawrence.
After two “off” games, Young also reasserted his impact on the Big 12. His post-game spike? Don’t read anything into that.
“When you celebrate too much after a win, it’s like you’re surprised,” he said. “I expected to win this game.”
And the Hack-A-Dock strategy that helped fulcrum a close game? “I’d rather be up by 20,” he said, evoking laughter. “I’m not that competitive.”
About what one would expect from a “game manager.”