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January 12, 2013

Sooner veterans lead newcomers to Bedlam win

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NORMAN, Okla. -- Seniors set the tone of a team.

On a team full of role players that’s how it must be. The Sooners are no different.

For the freshmen, sophomores and juniors on Oklahoma’s roster, this is just another season.

They’ll have time to make big shots, to make game-changing plays, to make memories. The seniors do not.

Seniors Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Sam Grooms are running out of days to sketch their names in the Sooner history book, and games like the one they played against Oklahoma State at home are few and far between.

This game was Bedlam, and it belonged to the Sooners after summoning a 77-68 win at Lloyd Noble Center.

Bedlam is not just an in-state rivalry. It’s the only in-state rivalry, and Saturday afternoon’s game means more than many in the past.

 “We got five seniors, so we know how it is to be in close Big 12 games and have to come down the stretch and then just don’t make enough plays to get the game,” Osby said. “It’s been big for us.”

Oklahoma (11-3, 2-0) and Oklahoma State are each projected to reach this season’s NCAA tournament by folks who are paid to forecast such things. But, as any senior would tell you, there are the games to play.

Seniors don’t get flustered when the full court press is on, and if they do, they respond the way senior point guard Sam Grooms did. The surest ball handler for the Sooners took over the offense for much of the second half, a nod to the Sooners’ deep roster.

“I think the depth is a big key,” said Oklahoma men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger. “We’ve got veteran guys coming off the bench, and last year we didn’t quite have the ability to sustain anything that we had good going.”

When the Pokes’ stifling defense allowed OSU (11-4, 1-2) to pull to within three points of the Sooners, Grooms didn’t become flashy with his dribble. He simply looked for the open man down court. He made the simple play, the veteran play.

He ended the game with six points, three assists and just one turnover in 27 minutes. Freshman guard Je’lon Hornbeak started the game, but when he had to sit late in the second half, Grooms assumed the position among the Sooners’ remaining starting five for much of the game.

Grooms missed part of Thursday’s practice with a sprained ankle, an injury he’s been dealing with since late December, but didn’t let it affect his performance.

“Sam comes in here and plays great at a critical stage,” Kruger said.

Pledger opened the game with a hustle play, tipping a pass in the open court during the Pokes’ first possession, the first step in a 7-0 sprint by the Sooners to begin the game.

“Getting off to a good start kind of reinforces what we’ve done in practice,” Kruger said.

Pledger is known for his scoring as a Sooner. He’s made his bones as a knockdown shooter, OU’s best last season.

But big games call for more from seniors than points scored from beyond the arc.

Pledger stepped up in that regard, playing the kind of basketball that allowed him to come away with four boards in the first half. He stepped up again in the second half and hit three big free throws to put the Sooners up 58-52 with 8:15 left to play.

Pledger finished the game with 11 points, two assists, two steals and nine rebounds, just one off his career-high of 10. He understood he wasn’t getting his looks at the basket, and the Cowboys had never seen Buddy Hield.

Hield, a freshman guard who always has something to say, wasn’t shy in his Bedlam debut, especially in front of raucous crowd which he seemed to send into a frenzy after each of his three 3-pointers popped nylon.

Hield scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but that’s old hat for this newbie. He began the season as a scorer, just a man who liked to get buckets and sprint back to defend the ball.

But he’s slowly become a more complete ballplayer since the Sooners’ last loss to Stephen F. Austin. He dropped a team-high five dimes and committed just two turnovers in 37 minutes on the floor.

 “I love it when the crowd is watching me play,” Hield said. “It gives us more energy. We feed off the crowd. We feed off of each other as well.”



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