NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma forward Kristian Doolittle was pounding away down low while Matt Freeman screamed at him from the corner, set up for a wide open 3-pointer.
After a few seconds, Doolittle drew a foul and turned to walk to the line. Freeman rushed over, saying something like, “Hey I was open.” That was Christian James's cue, as he quickly reassured Freeman that they would get it to him next time, Doolittle just had the hot hand.
That moment, teammates talking and believing what each other is saying, is the biggest difference from last year, and it's why the No. 23 Sooners (12-2, 1-1 Big 12) have routinely won games like Saturday's 74-64 victory over Oklahoma State (6-8, 0-2) at Lloyd Noble Center.
“It's very important,” James said. “Every guy on this team wants to make plays for his team. He was open. Matt's a great shooter and he wanted to knock it down for us. But we need a leader. That's why I step up, make plays and tell him move onto the next play. I told him, 'You'll get it back.'”
It was an ugly game from start to finish, the kind that lends itself to shooters just wanting to shoot their way out of it.
There were 27 combined fouls by halftime, with all five of Oklahoma State's starters in foul trouble. At one point, the Sooners missed 14-straight field goals, a run ended by three offensive rebounds and a putback on a single trip with 1:46 left in the first half. Both teams were shooting below 30 percent as OU clung to a 38-32 lead, and Doolittle led everyone with nine points.
“If we didn't stop them then we would have been blown out,” Doolittle said. “We were able disrupt their shooters and run them off the 3-point line, basically everything we had planned on doing going into the game.”
Doolittle was the only Sooner to shoot better than 40 percent on more than five attempts, hitting 4 of 8 to score a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds. After missing two open 3-pointers and all five of his first-half shots, Brady Manek attacked the basket in the second half, sinking 4 of 7 to finish with 15 points.
James, who entered this week as the Big 12's fourth-leading scorer while shooting 46.9 percent, broke out of his slump. He made 4 of 15 at Kansas Wednesday and missed seven of his first 10 Saturday. Then, with 2:41 left, he put his head down, rushed through traffic and rolled in an acrobatic layup to put OU up 68-61, finishing 5 of 13 for 14 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth double-double in seven games.
“I just took a little bit of extra time to focus on my mechanics,” James said. “A couple went in today. It felt good, gave me a little confidence.”
This was as close as it gets to a must-win game for OU.
With trips to No. 5 Kansas and No. 11 Texas Tech sandwiched around it, dropping Bedlam I, in Norman, against the only Big 12 team with a losing record, would have set OU back. Instead, it matched last season's 14-game start, when it was ranked in the top 5, and is 5-1 in games decided by 10 or fewer points, the only loss coming at rowdy Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas.
“We've just got to stay together on the court, and I felt like last year, we didn't do that as much,” James said. “That's my job, keep everybody level headed, whether we're here or on the road, whatever the case may be.”
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