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SPORTS: University of Oklahoma

Despite Loss, Sooners In Prime Position For NCAA Tournament Berth

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STILLWATER, Oklahoma -

Saturday's Bedlam matchup in Stillwater was how this rivalry should always be; a raucous crowd, an intense, well-played game, high energy and high emotions.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State needed overtime to decide a victor in front of a rowdy, sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena crowd, but in the end, it was the Cowboys coming out on top, 84-79, behind Herculean efforts from freshman phenom Marcus Smart and sophomore Le'Bryan Nash.

Smart finished with 28 points and Nash had 26, 23 of those after halftime.

For the Sooners, it was a tough loss to stomach, especially since a win would have all but assured the Sooners a berth in the NCAA tournament. However, a close loss against a top-25 foe won't do anything to hinder the Sooners' chances at getting to the Big Dance. It was a situation that could only help the Sooners.

Coming into the game, the big question was how the Sooners would respond to losing freshman guard Buddy Hield, who broke a bone in his foot in Monday's win over TCU. Je'lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins got the start for the Sooners, but Cousins was saddled with two fouls early in the first half and barely played in the second half.

Instead, it was senior guard Sam Grooms—relegated to a backup role this season—that came through for the Sooners with a career-high 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting. However, a late turnover from Grooms—a steal by OSU's Markel Brown that turned into a layup for Michael Cobbins—helped OSU seal the victory over the Sooners.

It was a game of runs, as OSU ran out to a 19-8 lead thanks to 3-pointers from Brown and Phil Forte. The Sooners were ice-cold from the field to start the game, but once they began knocking down shots, things started to turn.

After the Forte 3, the Sooners ended the first half on a 27-8 run, including a 9-0 run over the last few minutes, to take a 35-27 lead into the break. The second half started the way the first half ended, with OU opening up a 45-34 lead after a 3-pointer from Hornbeak. OSU responded with an 8-0 and from that point on, neither team would lead by more than six points.

Even though OU failed to come out of Stillwater with a win, the schedule down the stretch sets up quite nicely for the Sooners. OU has its toughest two games—Baylor and Iowa State—at home, and is finished with Kansas, Kansas State and OSU.

The Sooners do have a trip to Austin to take on Texas—who welcomed back Myck Kabongo this week—but the other two road games are against Texas Tech and TCU. OU also plays West Virginia at home.

It's not inconceivable to see OU run the table with those six games, especially since it has already beaten all of those teams except for Iowa State. The Sooners were waxed in Ames almost two weeks ago and any performance would be better for OU than the one it offered up in that last game against the Cyclones.

OU has put itself in a great position to make its first NCAA tournament since 2009. Even though the Sooners weren't able to capitalize on Saturday's opportunity, the schedule down the stretch has plenty of opportunities for the Sooners to put the finishing touches on an impressive NCAA tournament resume.

Finishing strong is always a key factor the selection committee looks at when picking the field of 68. For OU, that stretch begins Wednesday night in Lubbock.

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