OU seniors Andrew Fitzgerald and Steven Pledger have hung tough together
BY GUERIN EMIG World Sports Writer
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
3/06/13 at 7:46 AM
NORMAN - It was around last Christmas when Andrew Fitzgerald was distressed.
Oklahoma's senior forward had to pick up somebody at the airport. That meant driving from Norman to Oklahoma City, and it was a bit icy out. He was not cool with that at all.
So he did what he's done when trouble has loomed over the past four years. He sought his close friend for comfort.
And that's how Fitzgerald and teammate/classmate Steven Pledger wound up creeping around the wintry streets of Norman together in an impromptu tutorial.
"It was simple," Pledger says. "I told him, 'You've gotta assume can't nobody else drive.' "
Fitzgerald made it just fine. He's alive and well, and Wednesday night he'll join Pledger in the two seniors' final game at the Lloyd Noble Center. They should revel in it some.
West Virginia (13-16, 6-10 Big 12) comes to town playing out the season. The Sooners (19-9, 10-6) are anticipating their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.
Pledger and Fitzgerald, who claim they have ignored March Madness the past couple years, can finally feel good toward a season's end.
Pledger has averaged 18 points over his last five games, a big reason behind OU's offensive surge. Fitzgerald joins Cameron Clark as the Sooners' most productive reserves. Both started previously. Both accepted their new roles without hitches, a big reason behind OU's feel-good chemistry.
These are happier days for the two friends.
"When you consider all of the games, the coaching change, various things throughout their careers, their positives haven't been as many as they've liked," OU coach Lon Kruger says. "But to see them have the type of year they're having and hopefully go out on a positive note is great."
What got them through all of the games - considering OU was 14-36 in the Big 12 the past three years, it's really all of the "losses" - and the change from Jeff Capel to Kruger, and a miserable freshman season that ended in an NCAA investigation, was each other.
Backtrack to the middle of that freshman season. The Sooners were coming apart, about to nosedive into a nine-game season-ending losing streak, followed by news of an investigation into a $3,000 loan issued to the family of freshman Tiny Gallon.
"Seeing the stuff that was going on, all of the individuality, all of the negativity, that's when we really got close," Fitzgerald says. "We'd just talk to each other, or we'd always joke around. We'd chill, watch movies all night. We'd walk around the campus, anything to get our minds off everything that was going on around us."
Capel had encouraged the two East Coast transplants (Fitzgerald is from Baltimore, Pledger from Chesapeake, Va.) to room together. What he did was put them in a life raft.
"We were really just chilling a lot at that point," Pledger said. "We didn't leave the room that much, and if we did, we went together somewhere. We used to walk everywhere. We used to walk all the way out here (from the dorm a half-mile down Jenkins Avenue to the Lloyd Noble Center). Just me and him.
"Since then, I've known he's got my back."
The two of them toughed it out, only to plunge into a second dive. The 2011 Sooners dropped nine of their last 11. Capel was fired a couple days after the season.
You couldn't blame Pledger and Fitzgerald for exploring options, maybe a little closer to home, at the time.
"That always crosses your mind, but we just stuck together," Fitzgerald says. "We knew at some point the program was going to change, that there would be a turning point for us. So we stuck to it."
Kruger's arrival helped. Vibes and chemistry were instantly better. Winning helped more.
Pledger and Fitzgerald were finally allowed some success, finally allowed to smile a little. Which they have done, just the two of them.
It's even been nice for the two families. They all met each other during OU's Thanksgiving week stay in Orlando, Fla., for the Old Spice Classic. They reunited during Senior Day festivities last Saturday.
The Sooners honored their seniors a game early, figuring it would be easier to do so on a weekend. Wednesday night, though, is really it for Fitzgerald, Pledger, Romero Osby, Sam Grooms and Casey Arent.
Wednesday, Fitzgerald and Pledger say goodbye together.
Reflecting back on the darker days and the decision to press on, Pledger says: "We came in as a package, and we were leaving as a package. That's how we thought of it. ... And that's how we're gonna go out."
West Virginia (13-16, 6-10 Big 12)
|Ht. ||Pt.|| Reb.|
|F ||Kilicli ||6-9|| 8.7|| 4.4|
|F ||Humphrey ||6-6 ||4.2 ||2.0|
|F ||Noreen|| 6-10|| 2.8 ||4.5|
|G|| Staten|| 6-1|| 8.3|| 3.4*|
|G|| Harris ||6-2|| 9.4 ||2.1|
Oklahoma (19-9, 10-6 Big 12)
*assists per game
|Ht. ||Pt.|| Reb.|
|F|| M’Baye ||6-9|| 10.6|| 5.6|
|F ||Osby ||6-8 ||15.2|| 7.1|
|G ||Hornbeak|| 6-3|| 5.4|| 2.8|
|G ||Pledger ||6-4|| 11.9|| 3.2|
|G ||Grooms ||6-1|| 4.8 ||2.9*|
Vs. West Virginia
8 p.m. Wednesday
Radio: KTBZ am1430
Original Print Headline: OU pair has stayed together
Guerin Emig 918-581-8355
OU's Andrew Fitzgerald (back) hugs teammate Steven Pledger following their team's win over Kansas last month. SUE OGROCKI / AP