OKLAHOMA CITY — Being a bystander to a celebration isn’t fun. Three times in the last calendar year, Oklahoma watched teams revel in championships won at its expense.
Sunday at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, it was the Sooners who finally got to dog-pile and break out the commemorative T-shirts and caps after a 7-2 victory over Kansas in the Big 12 tournament title game.
“Words can’t describe it, especially in the Big 12 Conference,” OU center fielder Max White said while trying to figure whether to wear his OU cap or his Big 12 tournament champions cap late Sunday afternoon. “We won a super regional in my freshman year and I guess it’s the last time we dogpiled in a Sooner uniform. It’s just relieving. After four years, I’m exhausted. It’s humbling and couldn’t wish for anything else with this group of guys.”
What OU (40-19) accomplished over the last four days erased four weeks of struggles that saw them go from the top of the Big 12 standings and in position to host a NCAA tournament regional, to tumbling to fourth in the league and planting themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble.
It was wiped away after the Sooners went 4-0 in Oklahoma City to win the conference tournament for the first time since the inaugural event in 1997.
The only thing that changed was the way the Sooners won Sunday and some of the names who paved the way.
Some names, however, did not. Others just switched roles.
First baseman Matt Oberste went 2 for 4 and drove in four runs. His two-run homer in the third inning gave the Sooners a 5-1 lead. The two-run single he added in the ninth made the final three outs OU had to get a formality.
It was the kind of performance Oberste had several times early in the season, but they had been few and far between in the second half of the season.
“The guys in front and behind me did a good job of protecting me,” Oberste said.
It was the key. Oberste had runners to drive in and Kansas (34-25) had to throw him strikes because there was no open base to put him.
Then again, OU played that way throughout the tournament. In 38 innings, it never trailed against Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Kansas.
They busted open the championship game with three runs in the top of the first inning on two-out RBI singles from Hector Lorenzana and Anthony Hermelyn and Oberste scored on a wild pitch.
The early lead allowed the Sooners to piece together the pitching in their fourth game in four days.
OU coach Sunny Golloway hoped he could get two innings out of starter Ethan Carnes. He got 21⁄3 frames. The decision to turn it over to closer Jacob Evans for the next five was the tough one.
Evans was on the mound when Kansas State rallied for four runs in the ninth in OU’s 7-6, 11-inning victory over the Wildcats Saturday. It was a blown save for the freshman left-hander and it was hard to forget.
However, Golloway showed faith in him and it paid off. Evans (7-2) picked up the victory after holding the Jayhawks to four hits and one run over five innings.
“I was struggling for a little bit and down on myself,” Evans said. “I got out of one inning and went back there and calmed myself down and went out there and did what I did all season.”
Again, Golloway was hoping for two innings from Evans and wound up with much more. Kyle Hayes, much like he had a day earlier, calmly picked up the final five outs to get the save and give the Sooners the title. Frank Duncan (4-6) took the loss for Kansas. He lasted three innings, allowing five runs on six hits. It was a tough loss for the Jayhawks to take.
The NCAA tournament field will be announced today, but it’s widely assumed Kansas won’t receive an at-large bid. The Sooners have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The pressure of securing a spot weighed heavily on the final four weeks of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament. OU was never considered out of the field and winning the first three games in Oklahoma City likely secured a spot. However, the performance Sunday made it official.
“Huge relief,” center fielder Max White said. “We’ve been up and down for about the last four weeks. But we’ve been playing a lot of inspired ball.”
Every team hopes to enter the NCAA tournament playing the best they’ve played all season. OU is in the field 64 and feeling its part of that small group playing at peak form.
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