Rogers State took control early, then relied on its bountiful and artful skills to dominate the rest of the way Saturday night, and the Hillcats registered a landmark 78-71 victory over Oklahoma Baptist at the Claremore Expo.
It was an impressive victory, a victory over the No. 19 team in the NAIA basketball rankings, achieved before an impressive crowd, a crowd that numbered 1,227.
The attendance was the second largest of the season, and the Hillcats responded with a program-making triumph.
Rogers State is in its first year of collegiate basketball competition.
Oklahoma Baptist is a collegiate basketball blueblood, a program with a national reputation and a national championship.
The Hillcats never gave OBU the slightest hint that they were going to do anything but dominate.
The Hillcats did not waver, did not yield, did not flinch.
The Hillcats shot well, rebounded vigorously, defended with a passion.
They did it all, and they did it in a unified, selfless manner.
Each of RSU’s five starters scored between 9 and 20 points, and five players handed out assists.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Hillcats coach Wren Baker said. “We’ve played with some good teams — Northwestern State, Oklahoma City — but we haven’t been able to make plays in the stretch of a game that would allow us to win.
“I feel like we took a huge step forward tonight because we made some plays that allowed us to win.
“We hit free throws. We didn’t turn it over. We got defensive stops. We got rebounds. Those are the things that in other games, we haven’t done.”
In earlier games, particularly the home game with another tradition-rich program, defending national champion Oklahoma City, the Hillcats led early, then did not possess the skills to successfully hold their ground down the stretch.
Oklahoma City scored on a last-second tip-in to upend the Hillcats in the Expo in December.
Saturday night, the Hillcats did not let the Bison hang around for such a finish.
The Hillcats opened a pair of six-point leads in the first half, then began expanding those in the second half.
Their leads went from 9 to 11 to 12 in a five-minute stretch midway of the second half.
In that run, Bryson Krueger scored three times, Aldric Reynolds hit a 3-pointer and Roderick Rodgers counted a pair of free throws.
It was Krueger’s follow shot at 6:10 that established the Hillcats’ high-water mark, 60-48.
Even as the Bison tried to keep pace on the way to the final buzzer, the Hillcats always had an answer.
And, they always had the crowd. No one left early, despite the game running a little late — not finishing until after 10 p.m.
Many in attendance were seeing the Hillcats for the first time.
The Hillcats did not disappoint.
Certainly not Krueger, the 6-7 transfer from Arizona State. He had 20 points, hitting seven of 12 shots from the field, including two of three from beyond the 3-point arc.
And certainly not Abram Donlon, the 6-9 pivot who pulled in 12 rebounds — including nine off the defensive glass — to go along with his 11 points.
The Hillcats put on a blue-ribbon shooting exhibition, hitting 25 of 48 shots — 52 percent. Of that number, seven of 12 3-pointers fell in — a 58-percent clip.
And, the Hillcats stymied OBU’s shooting touch. The Bison managed only five treys in 20 attempts — 25 percent . And even though the Bison shot an acceptable 45 percent from the floor (23 of 51), they were far from able to keep track of the Hillcats.
Notes — Rogers State improved to 12-7 in all games and 7-6 in the Sooner Athletic Conference. RSU is alone in fifth place in the league, right behind OBU. The Bison are 15-5 overall and 7-5 in the league. ...
The game marked the return of Roderick Rodgers, who had been held out of three games for disciplinary reasons.
He played 14 minutes and scored nine points.
“I told him, ‘We won while you were out, and you’ll have to earn your starting spot back,’” Baker said.
When asked how long it might take for the 6-5 Rodgers to move back into his role, Baker said there is no timetable.
“I don’t know if that’s one game, or two games, or not at all. But we’re not going to give it to him. He’ll have to earn it. And, he understands that.”
RSU 78, OBU 71
Oklahoma Baptist 29 42 — 71
Rogers State 34 44 — 78
Oklahoma Baptist — Jones 22, Hill 20, Perez 9, Williams 7, Carter 6, Moore 4, Grace 3.
Rogers State — Krueger 20, Donlon 11, Spicer 10, Young 10, Reynolds 9, Rodgers 9, Coats 6, Rutherford 3.