FORT WORTH, Texas — If this is what we can expect from Big 12 Conference games this season, then buckle up.
The No. 10 TCU Horned Frogs and the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners played the closest Big 12 opener Saturday afternoon, as the Sooners (11-1, 1-0 in Big 12) pulled out a 90-89 win over the Horned Frogs (12-1, 0-1), despite being down by as much as 13 points midway through the second half.
The Sooners snapped the Horned Frogs’ 17-game winning streak, dating back to last year’s NIT championship run, and ended TCU’s undefeated 2017-18 season. But the game sets the tone for what many believe will be an 18-game gauntlet for the conference as a whole, as three of the five league games played this weekend were decided by six points or less.
“Well Big 12 games are going to be like that,” OU head coach Lon Kruger said afterward. “We watched the games last night and they were hard-fought and came down to the end. Today’s certainly was. We expect that pretty much every night out in the Big 12.”
There is no easy road in the Big 12, and few leads are safe. TCU experienced that Saturday. The Horned Frogs led by 13 points, 67-54, with 10:37 left. On paper they were the more balanced team. Five Horned Frogs finished in double figures, led by Kenrich Williams’ 22 points. Two players had nine rebounds (Williams and Kouat Noi). The Horned Frogs held a 20-11 edge on the offensive glass.
Kruger acknowledged much of that after the game. That 13-point deficit, even with 10 minutes left, was hard to chip away at, given how physically TCU played defense.
“It wasn’t like we got them back real quick,” Kruger said. “We had a 5-point possession that helped a lot. We got a 3-pointer and then a foul right after. Other than that we just grinded it to get back on top.”
Plus, if you had told TCU head coach Jamie Dixon that Oklahoma’s star freshman, Trae Young, would go 9-for-23 from the floor before the game, he would have taken it.
But that’s not what cost the Horned Frogs in the end, as least as far as Young was concerned.
“What hurt us was sending him to the free throw line 18 times (Young was 15-of-18) and his (14) assists, many of which came in transition,” Dixon said.
OU led TCU in fast break point, 19-8, and some of that transition fueled the rise of Kameron McGusty, who eventually became OU’s second option in this game, scoring 22 points, many of which came in the second half when the Sooners needed someone to take the heat off of Young.
McGusty was 3-for-4 from the 3-point line, and none were bigger than the 3 he hit with 26 seconds left off a pass from Jamuni McNeace. The shot put the Sooners up, 88-87. Young missed the shot to try and give OU the lead, McNeace rebounded and kicked it out to McGusty.
Young grabs the headlines and justifiably so as he scored 39 points to go along with his 14 assists. Young said TCU really didn’t do anything differently defensively, but they brought the physicality, whether it was away from the basket or driving into the paint. That led to some poor shot selection on Young’s part and he admitted as much after the game.
That makes McGusty’s recent upturn significant for the Sooners. McGusty averaged 10.9 points last year, but struggled to find his shot in non-conference action this season.
Entering the TCU game McGusty had games of 13, 15 and 11 points to wrap up non-conference action and while it took him time to get going (he had 7 points in the first half), his game spiked when it counted. Dixon pointed out afterward that most of McGusty’s points game in transition.
“I owe Jumani a couple from a couple of games ago so I knew he was going to throw it to me and he had thrown it to me earlier in the game,” McGusty said, who had a season-high 22 points. “I knew it was money when I left my hand. It felt good.”
You would have thought it was a close game throughout, but in actuality the Sooners held an 11-0 lead with nearly four minutes gone in the game. Williams was one of several Horned Frogs that helped them crawl back into the game and eventually take control of it 30 minutes in. And Williams, the senior guard, was who they turned to as they fell behind by a single point. Ten seconds after McGusty’s 3-pointer, Desmond Bane fed Williams the basketball and he turned that pass into his final points of the game to give TCU an 89-88 lead with 16 seconds left.
It was the last time TCU would lead the contest.
“We’ve just got to finish the game,” Williams said. “We got the lead and we have to keep the lead and then finish it. That’s what I take away from the game.”
16 seconds is too much time when the Sooners have a player like Young, and the Horned Frogs helped OU out as Bane fouled Young, the 46th of 47 fouls in a physical contest. Young was not the player TCU wanted at the free throw line. Young made both to give OU a 1-point lead with 7.9 seconds left.
During the timeout the Horned Frogs, who had to inbound under OU’s basket, discussed their options and after play began they got the ball down to Williams on the baseline on the TCU end. One of those options was not Williams throwing up a 3-pointer from the corner in the final seconds. But that’s what happened. Williams missed the basket, OU rebounded and a final TCU foul with .2 seconds left effectively ended the game.
Williams said in hindsight that he could have gotten a better look and perhaps taken a dribble before the basket, but it didn’t work out that way.
Dixon was surprised that’s all the Horned Frogs ended up with.
“We practice that (play) a lot and I thought we would have done better with it,” Dixon said. “But we didn’t. It’s not the only reason we lost. But certainly we had time. Man, we practice that a lot and I was surprised that’s what we got.”
Dixon said they usually end up with a shot closer to the basket.
The Sooners snagged a win over a Top 10 team while the Horned Frogs fell to a Top 15 team for the first time this season. But it could have easily gone the other way, as evenly matched as the two teams appeared on Saturday. TCU has a quick turnaround for Baylor while Oklahoma faces Oklahoma State. And, these two teams play each other again in just a couple of weeks.
So, it gets no easier for either team. No weak sisters in the Big 12, not when Oklahoma State goes to Morgantown and pushed the West Virginia Mountaineers hard in a six-point loss, or when Texas hosts Kansas and loses by just six.
“It’s a tough loss and we can’t let it turn into two (in a row),” Dixon said.