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November 16, 2012

Sooners take tough road but pass first test

ARLINGTON, Texas - There were tents set up Friday evening along Pecan Street with Texas-Arlington fans painting their faces orange and blue. There were pro-Maverick signs galore, including one that read, "I ball so hard the Sooners want to find me. GO MAVS!"

Two and half hours before Oklahoma narrowly defeated UTA 63-59, students filled the street outside of College Park Center and yelled derogatory chants about the Sooners. The college newspaper even printed a special section in anticipation of the matchup, and a parade was held an hour before tip-off.

It was homecoming weekend at a school that hadn't cheered for a football team since 1985, and whose basketball team was coming off one of its best seasons in school history.

6,421 people attended the game --the largest crowd in UTA school history -- nearly filling the center to capacity.

This was the atmosphere Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger and his staff wanted their newcomers to see, to feel. This was the kind of environment senior forward Romero Osby said they needed to endure.

"Playing (UTA) on the road, opening their building under the circumstances -- the odds were kind of stacked against us. That was good for us, and it kind of made us grow up a little bit."

Osby was ready. He'd seen this before.

He responded to the hostile environment with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes while defending senior forward Jordan Reeves, a man two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier than him.

But not all the Sooners were ready.

Not all of them felt what it was like to be booed as they stepped on the court just before opening announcements. Not all of them had witnessed their coach being berated by a wild and uproarious student section.

And, at times, they're inexperience showed.

After freshman guard Je'lon Hornbeak hit the first 3-pointer of the game, the Mavericks scored 12 straight and opened a 16-9 lead. UTA was helped by an OU squad that converted just 3-of-15 field goal attempts and pulled down just five boards in the first eight minutes of the game.

Junior guard Cameron Clark came off the bench early with freshman guard Buddy Hield and provided an influx of energy and athleticism. Clark lifted the Sooners out of their early fog with six points, and Hield did what he does best: Get buckets.

With the Sooners down 19-14, Hield sparked a 26-4 scoring run with deft shooting from the perimeter and his uncanny ability to attack the basket. He finished the first half with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-5 from beyond the arc.

He wouldn't score in the second half, but he would remain the game's top scorer.

"Buddy was fantastic there in the first half," Kruger said. "He came in down eight or ten, and scored about every way you can. Offensive boards, 3s -- he even had a steal and laid it in."

OU opened a 46-30 lead to begin the second half, but UTA refused to quit. The Mavericks chipped away at Oklahoma's lead with a 20-7 scoring run and eventually tied the game at 57-57 with 2:40 left to play.

Mr. Momentum seemed to be sitting at the end of UTA's bench wearing Maverick orange and blue when Osby saw senior 2-guard Steven Pledger catch the ball just beyond the 3-point arc on the next possession.

"When he caught it and I saw him kind of put his head down a little bit, I just tried to get rebounding position because I knew it was going up," Osby said. "When it went in, it's kind of something you expect from him to make big shots."

The Sooners converted just 5-of-18 3-point attempts, but none was bigger than that one. Pledger finished the night 4-of-10 from the floor with 11 points.

Kruger said he didn't like how the Sooners dribbled or passed and didn't like how they weren't able to handle a big lead. He gave credit to UTA coach Scott Cross for preparing his team to play the kind of basketball that would normally win games.

"So what they did tonight was no surprise," Kruger said. "Fortunate to be able to get out with a win and also to be able to learn from it."


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