The atmosphere inside Lloyd Noble Center had grown tense. A 47-33 Oklahoma lead had almost completely evaporated as Oklahoma State chipped away at the margin with free throws and suffocating pressure defense.
Two free throws from Le'Bryan Nash cut the Sooners' lead to 52-50 with 9:34 remaining in the game, but that's as close as the Cowboys would get as the Sooners weathered the Cowboys' run to win their ninth straight Bedlam game in Norman, 77-68.
OU never trailed Saturday afternoon, jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first two minutes of the game, but it was that key stretch in the second half that showed everyone just how far the Sooners have come under head coach Lon Kruger in just over a year. Last season, there's no question the Sooners would have continued to fold as the Cowboys made their big push to take the lead.
This season, OU responded every time. After Nash hit his free throws, OU's Steven Pledger hit a three-pointer. After two Markel Brown free throws cut the lead to three, Pledger was fouled shooting a three-pointer and hit all three free throws. Two more free throws from Brown cut the lead to four, but a three-pointer from freshman Buddy Hield pushed the lead back to seven.
Every time the Cowboys tried to make a run, the Sooners had an answer. Amath M'Baye had a 7-0 run of his own, punctuated by a monster slam off an inbounds pass alley-oop to push the lead to 70-57 with 3:59 remaining, sending the Lloyd Noble crowd into hysterics, and effectively ending any other Oklahoma State threat.
"We're just trying to learn from last year and bring some of the new guys along with us," OU senior Romero Osby said about OU closing out close games. "We've got five seniors, so we know how it is being in close Big 12 games and having to come down the stretch and just don't make enough plays to win the game. I think it's been good because coach scheduled a lot of road games for us early in the year, forcing us to play with our backs against the wall."
The Sooners won Saturday's game with a resilient attitude that manifested itself on both ends of the court. The Sooners shot 8-of-13 from three-point range and 19-of-21 from the free-throw line while holding the Cowboys to 39.3 percent shooting from the field, including 6-of-21 from three-point distance.
Saturday's win was without question the biggest for the Sooners this season. OU boasts two wins over Big 12 foe West Virginia, including last Saturday's 10-point win in Morgantown, along with a 64-54 win over Texas A&M—who knocked off Kentucky on the road Saturday—in the All-College Classic Dec. 15, but Oklahoma State has been hovering on the edge of the top 25 for most of the season.
It may still be a bit early to talk about where Oklahoma would fall in the NCAA tournament. There are still several questions about this team—most notably how they handle full-court pressure—that need to be answered on the court for the Sooners to start looking ahead to March.
However, Saturday's game showed the country the Sooners have what it takes to face a quality opponent, take some punches, and gut out a win. Teams don't make the NCAA tournament without that ability. Oklahoma has won several close games this season, but none against the quality of team like Oklahoma State. If the Sooners do in fact make the NCAA tournament this season for the first time since 2009, Oklahoma can point back to this game as a turning point for a program that had lost its way.