John E. Hoover: OU hopes Bedlam win has meaning come March
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1/13/13 at 7:14 AM
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NORMAN - Don't look now - as the weather showed us Saturday, it's still only January - but maybe what Oklahoma showed over the last 9 1/2 minutes of a 77-68 Bedlam victory over Oklahoma State was what the Sooners missed so much during the previous three seasons.
More accurately, a will to win, and the maturity and composure to withstand a challenge, especially when a win starts to slip away.
OU built a 14-point lead in the first half, stretched it back to 14 early in the second half, then looked almost powerless as the Cowboys cut away, possession by possession, toward their first win in the Lloyd Noble Center since 2004.
Only, O-State never got the lead. Never tied it. Got within 52-50, and that was it.
Oklahoma, instead of losing another lead and stumbling to another defeat, suddenly showed poise and retook control of the game.
The Cowboys (11-4 overall, 1-2 in Big 12 play) have lost three of their last four, but beating a talented OSU team that just dropped out of the polls is no small feat for the Sooners. This goes down as OU's best victory since winning at Kansas State last season.
Of course, that was a January game, too. What really counts for college basketball teams is an ability to finish the regular season strong - that is, surge into March by winning in February.
The Sooners were 1-6, 1-7 and 1-8 the last three Februarys.
"Last year," coach Lon Kruger said afterward, "we didn't have that ability to quite sustain anything we had going."
Teams that build momentum in February usually have a more satisfying March. OU finished the last three seasons early in March with quick defeats in the Big 12 Tournament.
For this program, the NCAA Tournament has seemed as far away as next Christmas.
Of course, putting the Schooner in front of the ponies after a January rivalry win at home would be a mistake.
This isn't a tournament team yet. There have been signs - a No. 19 RPI, a No. 13 strength of schedule, an 11-3 record, four consecutive victories and now what will go down as a significant Bedlam triumph - but not yet.
"We're a ways from that right now," Kruger said. "But obviously the tournament doesn't start today. We've got to do a lot of work yet. But this team has the potential to keep rolling and keep maturing, keep making better plays."
They showed plenty of it late in the game on Saturday.
OSU had erased most of the Sooners' big lead, cutting it to 52-47 on Le'Bryan Nash's driving basket with 11:11 to play. Then, after three Cowboy free throws made it 52-50 with 9:34 left, the Sooners rose up.
Senior Steven Pledger started an 18-7 run with a 3-pointer, then sank three free throws. Freshman Buddy Hield and junior Amath M'Baye added 3s over the next two minutes as the suddenly poised Sooners coolly rebuilt their lead to nine. M'Baye put it away with four minutes to go on a powerful dunk on an inbounds alley-oop pass from senior Sam Grooms that made it 70-57 and sent the crowd and the Sooner bench into a fizz.
"Seemed like we made shots at critical times," Kruger said.
And it wasn't just shot-making. After getting within five at the 11:11 mark, Oklahoma State went almost 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal, missing six shots in a row.
The Sooners were pulling away with shooting, defense and rebounding.
A challenging early schedule - particularly losses to Gonzaga in Orlando and at Arkansas, and tight wins at Oral Roberts, against Texas A&M in Oklahoma City and last week in the Big 12 opener against West Virginia - "forced us to have to play with our backs to the wall," said senior Romero Osby.
Then again, so did the last three seasons. The four seniors and three juniors who labored for three straight losing teams look hungry for success.
"This group has potential," Kruger said. "I mean, they've got room to grow. They do a lot of good things and have improved in a lot of areas, which is exciting."
Original Print Headline: OU hopes win has meaning come March
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Oklahoma forward Romero Osby, top, shoots over Oklahoma State forward Philip Jurick, bottom, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Norman Saturday. (SUE OGROCKI / AP Photo)