KANSAS CITY – Just one day earlier, Oklahoma Sooners freshman Christian James played four minutes against Iowa State. He had never played more than 15 minutes in Big 12 Conference play and had nine games in conference with five minutes played or less.
But he checked into Friday night’s Big 12 Championship semifinal against West Virginia with 12:19 to play. James proceeded to commit an offensive foul on his first possession and another turnover less than two minutes later. He went 1-for-2 at the free-throw line as Oklahoma’s deficit grew to 10 points.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger stuck with the freshman, who had spent much of the season as the second guard off the bench. Over the final seven minutes of Friday’s loss, James made Kruger look good and gave the Sooners’ a spark.
James’ previous career-high was 12 points. He had that in the final seven minutes of the game.
“I’m very proud of him,” guard Buddy Hield said. “. . . His confidence has been high. Just him stepping up and making plays, we needed that.”
James hit a 3, found Isaiah Cousins for a 3-pointer and scored a put back off a Cousins miss. He hit four free throws in the final 3:34 and hit another 3-pointer to give Oklahoma the lead with 2:55 to go.
Oklahoma hasn’t had much of a bench all season, relying on the a starting lineup that is averaging more than 30 minutes per game. But James gives a little bit of hope that the Sooners’ can find better play off the bench.
“It remains to be seen, but hopefully, it will perk up Christian and encourage more play like that,” Kruger said. “We can certainly use that. We need that. I would expect Christian to come back and play with that type of confidence and that type of aggressiveness coming out of a performance like this.”
James even took the Sooners final shot of the game, slashing through an open lane but missing what would have been the go-ahead lay-up with four seconds to play after extensive contact.
Before Friday night, James had hit just one shot since Feb. 2 – a 3-pointer against Kansas. He had just seven points over the previous nine games and just eight rebounds over the same span. James finished Friday with 13 points and five rebounds – both career-highs.
Off the bench, it was James’ effort that keyed the Oklahoma rally, which fell just short. The Sooners will be hoping for more of that in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re planning on those guys stepping up,” said guardJordan Woodard, who didn’t play in the final 12 minutes during James’ surge, before the Big 12 Championship. “Coach is gonna put those guys in early because we have a long way to go. You can reserve anything. It’s win or go home and stakes are high.”