Under fire for shooting too often in his previous game, Oklahoma’s Trae Young took the floor Tuesday night with something to prove.
The nation’s leading scorer showed he’s not a selfish player by engineering an 85-80 victory over Kansas with his passing instead of his shooting.
Only once in the game’s opening 11 minutes did Young take a shot. Only three times in the entire game did he let the ball fly from behind the arc. Young did finish with an ultra-efficient 26 points on a season-low nine shots, but it was two brilliant passes he made that were the biggest difference makers.
With Oklahoma trailing by one with just over a minute remaining, Young drove baseline, drew a crowd of Kansas defenders and found Christian James spotted up in the corner. James made Kansas guard Malik Newman pay for cheating off him to help on Young, burying the go-ahead 3-pointer that put the Sooners ahead to stay.
Young helped seal the victory on Oklahoma’s next possession after Kansas’ Svi Mykhailiuk tried to answer with a three of his own but missed. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger called for a Brady Manek to set a high ball screen for Young, and when both Kansas defenders ran at the star point guard, he fed his sharpshooting freshman teammate for a game-clinching pick-and-pop 3-pointer.
Oklahoma’s victory instills some drama back into the Big 12 title race and prevents Kansas from putting a stranglehold on its 14th straight league championship. A road victory in Norman would have put Kansas two or more games clear of every other league rival. Now the Sooners (15-4, 5-3) are one of four teams within a game of the fifth-ranked Jayhawks (16-4, 6-2) with just over half the league season left to play.
What was striking about Young’s approach on Tuesday night was that it was the polar opposite of how he played three nights earlier in an overtime loss at Oklahoma State. The freshman scored a season-high 48 points against the Cowboys, but he also hoisted a season-high 39 shots, alternating between looking unstoppable and trying to do too much.
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.
Credit Young for reversing that trend with 7-for-9 shooting on Tuesday against Kansas, but there were times when it felt like he swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Is it good for Oklahoma that Young attempted only nine shots when he has taken 13 or more in every game he has played this season? Is it good for the Sooners that James had five more field goal attempts than Young but shot only 35.7 percent?
The truth is there’s probably a happy medium, one where Young doesn’t toss up 39 shots but also doesn’t defer to his teammates to the point where he himself isn’t aggressive. The Sooners’ offense can’t be four guys standing around the arc watching Young create off the dribble, but they also can’t go 11 minutes with him taking only one shot either.
After all, Oklahoma needed some good strategy — or good fortune — to pull off its victory over Kansas. Four times in the final four minutes, the Sooners fouled Kansas center Udoka Azubuike intentionally. The 7-foot sophomore missed all six free throws he attempted, yet Jayhawks coach Bill Self refused to pull the 41.1 percent foul shooter because he valued his defensive presence.
Those empty possessions kept Oklahoma within striking distance. Then Young made Kansas pay with two pinpoint passes.
On a night when Young arrived determined to get back to playing unselfishly, how fitting he won the game with a pair of assists.
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