Norman, Okla. Sandwiched between an emotionally charged victory against archrival Kansas University and a top-10 showdown with first place on the line, No. 4 Missouri faced a test of its collective focus.
The Tigers got a passing grade — barely.
Marcus Denmon scored 25 points, Ricardo Ratliffe added 15 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 4 Mizzou claimed first place in the Big 12 by edging Oklahoma, 71-68, on Monday night.
“We understand that this game was just as important as the last one,” Denmon said. “Pretty much, we have a veteran group and we just wanted to make sure everybody came out and understood how important this game would be for us to play after a big win like the one at home against Kansas.”
Coach Frank Haith required his players to report to a hotel by 2 a.m. after their late-night victory against the then-No. 8 Jayhawks, trying to temper the celebration and get a head start on a road game less than 48 hours later against an opponent they had beaten by 38 points earlier this season.
Asked whether it was the right move, Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe looked at each other and didn’t say a word.
Finally, Denmon answered and got a pat on the back from his first-year coach.
“Whether I wanted to go to the hotel or not, I understood,” Denmon said. “I understood that it was a good decision by Coach and it seems like it helped us.”
The Tigers host Baylor on Saturday.
Oklahoma (13-10, 3-8) still had the ball with a chance to tie with 5 seconds left. Romero Osby was fouled with 2.5 seconds left and missed both free throws, and Steven Pledger missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer when the offensive rebound was tapped back to him.
Pledger slumped to the ground and put his hands over his face after his potential tying shot clanged off the rim to end the game. He stayed on the floor until two Missouri players and teammate Barry Honore came over to lift him up.
“It was perfect. The play was designed to miss the free throw and get the tip-out and we actually got the tip-out,” said Pledger, who led Oklahoma with 22 points.
“It was on line. It felt good when it left my hand. It didn’t go in.”
Sam Grooms had a career-high 17 points and matched his career-best with 10 assists, and Andrew Fitzgerald scored 12 points for the Sooners.
Michael Dixon chipped in 13 points for Missouri.
The Tigers (22-2, 9-2) moved a half-game ahead of No. 6 Baylor and No. 7 Kansas in the standings. Those teams meet Wednesday night for a chance to pull even with Missouri, and the Tigers host the Bears on Saturday.
This one was nothing like Oklahoma’s previous meeting with Missouri, won 87-49 by the Tigers on their home court. Missouri held a 15-rebound advantage in that one but Oklahoma came out ahead 36-22 on the boards on Monday.
The Tigers made up for it by holding a 28-12 scoring edge the paint and getting the only 10 fast-break points of the game.
“There’s no question you had to fight against all of that — the emotional win and then you have a game at your place where you just played incredible and they didn’t play their best game,” Haith said.
“So, you get a false sense. You worry about that false sense of what it’s going to be like when they get here.”
In Norman, they found a half-full Lloyd Noble Center and a student section with dozens of empty seats that had newspapers draped over the backs that the occupants would usually hold up during pregame introductions.
It still got loud when the Sooners pulled within 66-64 after Pledger’s 3-pointer from the left side with 3:33 to play.
Denmon followed with a jumper from the right side with 2 seconds left on the shot clock before Grooms and Pledger both went 1 for 2 at the free throw line to get Oklahoma back within two.
Kim English then hit a 3-pointer from the right side off Phil Pressey’s seventh assist to provide what proved to be the game-winner with 53.6 seconds left.
Fitzgerald hit two free throws for Oklahoma with 41.6 seconds remaining and Dixon missed on a drive to the basket to give the Sooners their last chance with 5 seconds left.
“We never let them take the lead, and that was a sign of a good team,” Haith said. “I think once they made runs, we executed when we needed to make a shot.”
Oklahoma connected on its first six shots, and eight of 10 to get out to a 17-12 lead before Missouri surged back with seven straight points to take its first lead. The Sooners had an answer a few minutes later, getting two jumpers from Fitzgerald and a 3 by Pledger to go back up 29-23 with 5:27 left before halftime.
At that point, it didn’t seem like the hotel strategy was working.
“I felt like we came with energy,” Denmon said, “but it has to be on both ends.”
As hot as Oklahoma started from the field, it was equally cold at the foul line — missing all seven of its free throws in the first half.
The Tigers finally took charge, scoring the final six points of the first half and the first six of the second to build a 42-33 lead after Denmon’s three free throws.
Dixon’s jumper from the right side of the key gave Missouri a momentary 10-point lead before Pledger hit consecutive 3-pointers to get the crowd involved. Oklahoma got within 55-52 after Grooms’ jumper from the right wing with 12 minutes left before coming up empty on three possessions with the chance to tie it.
“You want to win at this point in time,” Grooms said. “We just have certain plays and certain mishaps on the court that don’t allow us to do that right now. ... When we’re ready to do it, we’ll do it. It’s up to us at the end of the day.”