OU sticking together, growing as team

NORMAN, Okla. -- Through it all, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has maintained the same message.

"We just have to keep getting better every day."

That message has been the mantra of Kruger since the preseason.

Those words are easy to say but much harder to live by, especially after a 0-3 start in Big 12 play. Disappointing losses to Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma State made it easy to wonder if those words had become the foundation of Kruger's first team in Norman or just words creating a surface image designed to represent the future of the program.

"You're 0-3, you're back is against the wall," point guard Sam Grooms said. "You really don't have anything to look forward to except playing for today and giving everything you've got."

OU began its season 10-2 in nonconference play, then lost three games in six days. Needless to say, the Sooners' belief in themselves was shaken, the core values of the team tested.

"They say the true test of character is when adversity hits," forward Romero Osby said.

Initially, the Sooners failed the test.

"I think the first couple of games we kind of broke apart," guard Carl Blair said. "We didn't stick together, we were kind of bickering back and forth; that will never happen again. It was a mistake we made.

"Good teams stick together and have confidence in each other."

But the Sooners got back on track on Saturday, leaving no doubt they have bought into their first year coach's message with a dominating 82-73 win over No. 18 Kansas State after arguably the most intense week of practice under Kruger. In the biggest game of the season, the Sooners never trailed and led by 18 points midway through the second half.

Against KU and OSU, the Sooners allowed game-changing runs which ultimately resulted in losses. Against K-State, the Wildcats made multiple runs in the second half, and the Sooners responded -- and most importantly stuck together -- to hold off the No. 18-ranked squad and secure the win.

It was a perfect example of what Osby had spoken of earlier in the week after looking back on the runs against the Cowboys and Jayhawks.

"We have to continue to stay physically and mentally tough," he said. "That's what it always comes down to. When games are close and the talent level on the court is even, it comes down to who is going to execute. We have to be mentally tough enough to take the good with the bad, especially being on the road."

Instead of falling apart like they did in early January, the Sooners stuck together during KSU's rallies.

"[We're] trying to maintain our togetherness," Osby said. "Don't let anything separate us, no matter if a team goes on a 12-0 run or we go on a 12-0 run. Just continue to be together throughout all that."

Saturday's win was a sign the Sooners are learning and, as Kruger has advocated, getting better each day.

"I think we are growing," Osby said. "We are trying to grow as a team, trying to grow as men. We are trying to figure out our identity and we have to do that. For it to happen, it's something we have to do."

The importance of the win over K-State cannot be overstated because a loss would have put OU at 0-4 and could have snowballed into a stormy January. After this week's games against Texas Tech and Texas A&M, the Sooners finish the month with a home contest against No. 4 Baylor and a road tilt at KSU before facing the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kan., on Feb. 1.

Not a rosy schedule for any team, let alone a team questioning its ability to win.

"The guys have worked hard and we haven't won," Kruger said. "To win reinforces that progress. From a coach perspective and from our team, the most important thing is that the win reinforces working hard."

Now sitting at 1-3 in the Big 12, OU has eyes on reaching .500 in conference play by this time next week.

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.

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