Elijah Harkless drove to the basket with Kansas State guard Mike McGuirl tightly guarding, but was forced to retreat when sophomore forward Selton Miguel trickled over to double team him.
As Miguel backed off, Harkless crossed over McGuirl using his right hand and drove back to the basket before hurling himself into his Wildcat opponent and dropping a desperate floater. The senior guard’s off-balance shot fell, giving the Sooners a 67-65 lead with 35 seconds remaining in the game.
— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) January 2, 2022
“He just (isolated) him and hit a tough, tough shot,” OU head coach Porter Moser said about Harkless’ clutch make. “He’s tough as nails and he has hit big shots for us.”
On the ensuing K-State possession, sophomore guard Nigel Pack missed a go-ahead 3-point shot with 22 seconds left, which was rebounded by Umoja Gibson. The senior went on to knock down four clutch free throws in the remaining seconds.
With their late-game fortitude, Harkless and Gibson piloted the Sooners (10-2, 1-0 Big 12) to a 71-69 victory over Kansas State (8-4, 0-1) on Saturday night to open Big 12 play. Harkless led the team with 21 points, matching his season-high, and knocked down 4-for-4 3-point tries. Gibson scored a season-high 19 points and knocked down four 3-pointers as well, bringing his season total to a team-high 36.
Harkless and Gibson’s effort was increasingly crucial considering senior forward Tanner Groves, junior forward Jacob Groves and freshman guard Bijan Cortes were unavailable for Saturday night’s game due to health and safety protocols.
“We were just playing off of each other,” Gibson said. “I was scoring, he was scoring… EJ had a big night. Coach said, ‘next man up, next man mentality, whoever can step up to the plate and deliver,’ and that’s what we did tonight.”
With Tanner Groves out, the four other regular starters — Harkless, Gibson, redshirt senior guard Jordan Goldwire and junior forward Jalen Hill — stepped up in a big way, scoring 61 of the team’s 71 points.
Hill finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes while Goldwire ended the night with 11 points and four rebounds in 36 minutes.
“We had to step up, Tanner’s a big piece of our team,” Harkless said. “Me, (Gibson) and Jordan, we’re a senior-led team. ‘Next man up,’ as coach said, he’s prepared us very well. Unfortunate that (Tanner Groves) was out tonight but we all stepped up, showed our senior leadership, came out and beat a very good Kansas State team.”
With reserves Jacob Groves and Cortes out of the lineup, opportunities arose for freshman guard C.J. Noland and redshirt senior forward Ethan Chargois.
Noland, a former four-star recruit from Waxahachie, Texas, played 24 minutes off the bench and was the only non-starter to score for OU, as he dropped a career-high 10 points. Chargois made up for Tanner Groves’ absence on the boards, grabbing a team-high nine rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
“Man, was (Noland) confident,” Moser said. “Made some really nice basket cuts, a drive to the rim, made a nice 3. The 10 points on four shots was really good efficiency and we needed that.”
Moser told OU play-by-play commentator Toby Rowland postgame that Jacob Groves will be back for Tuesday night’s contest at No. 1 Baylor but that he was unsure about the other two players’ status. The Sooners expect to have more information about Groves on Sunday, but Moser said getting Cortes cleared might take longer.
Whether all three players are back or not, the Sooners have a tough task ahead of them with the Bears (13-0, 1-0) at 6 p.m. on Tuesday night in Waco on ESPN2.
“Super excited, that’s why we play basketball every single day,” Harkless said about facing the reigning national champions. “They’re going to come out ready, we’re going to come out ready and I’m just excited for the opportunity. Opportunities like this don’t come often so we’re happy that we get the opportunity now.”