MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

OU

May 27, 2013

OU pulls together for Big 12 championship

OKLAHOMA CITY  — Grinding through a rough patch with their chances of playing in the postseason slipping away, Sunny Golloway and the Oklahoma Sooners quickly realized their hardships weren’t so bad when a deadly tornado struck a neighboring community.

Suddenly, helping out people who had lost their homes became more important than batting practice. When their team bus broke down on the way to the Big 12 tournament, there weren’t any complaints.

With their priorities in order, the Sooners put together four straight wins and claimed their first Big 12 tournament crown in 16 years by beating Kansas 7-2 on Sunday in the championship game. Matt Oberste homered and drove in four runs, and Max White scored twice in the victory.

“We’ve been up and down for about the last four weeks, but we’ve been playing a lot of inspired ball ... and a lot of inspirational things have been going on around us with this tragic tornado that’s come through,” White said. “It kind of put things back in place and put things in perspective for us.

“For the longest time, I was kind of numb when it happened.”

Instead of practicing Wednesday, some of Oklahoma’s players went to Moore to help the recovery effort. That night, the team bus broke down on the way from Norman to Oklahoma City for the tournament opener the following morning. They were stranded on the side of the road for over an hour.

For a team that had been drifting toward the NCAA tournament bubble — going 2-9 during a stretch near the end of the regular season — it could have been one more frustration in a month filled with them. Instead, it hardly mattered.

“We keep talking about what we’ve been through the last three weeks and about trying to inspire each other,” said Golloway, the coach. “Watching a lot of what’s been going on in Moore has been more than inspiring and inspirational, I think, and it’s made us realize that we probably put too much concern and emphasis on some of the bad breaks that we’ve gotten.”

The fourth-seeded Sooners (40-19) made their own breaks Sunday, scoring three times after White reached on a catcher’s interference call with two outs in the first inning and bailing out a tired pitching staff with sparkling defense.

Oberste roped his 11th home run into the left-field bleachers in the third to make it 5-1 and tacked on a two-run single in the ninth.

Freshman Jacob Evans (7-2), usually the team’s closer, made the lead stand up by limiting Kansas to one run in five innings of relief. Kyle Hayes recorded the final five outs to earn his second save in as many days, tossing his mitt into the air after a called third strike against Ka’iana Eldredge to end the game. His teammates dog-piled on the infield in celebration.

The Sooners, who lost to Missouri in last year’s championship game, won the tournament title for the first time since the inaugural event in 1997.

“We need to add more championships to that,” Golloway said. “That’s what we play for. We play for rings, and we want to continue to add to that each and every year.”

Oklahoma has won five in a row, including two against regular-season champion Kansas State, to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Regional assignments will be announced Monday.

Kansas (34-25), the No. 6 seed, got its only runs on sacrifice flies from Michael Suiter in the first inning and Eldredge in the fifth.

Frank Duncan (4-6) lasted only 2 1-3 innings after getting the start for the Jayhawks, giving up five runs and six hits. Tanner Poppe came in after Oberste’s homer and kept Kansas in it with five innings of scoreless relief.

After there were an average of 17 runs scored in the previous two championship games, this one was featured a series of outstanding defensive plays.

Sooners second baseman Hector Lorenzana, on his way to cover second base with a runner in motion, ended the third inning when he stopped in his tracks and speared Kevin Kuntz’s line drive for a double play. Evans wiggled out of a jam in the fifth when he retired Justin Protacio on a fielder’s choice and snagged Kuntz’s liner back to the mound to leave runners stranded on second and third.

“Not only did he pitch well, obviously he made a huge defensive play of the game as well,” said Kansas coach Ritch Price, who led the Jayhawks to the 2006 tournament title as the sixth seed.

Price held out hope that Kansas might get an at-large spot on the NCAA bracket, although it seems unlikely.

“If we only get three teams in the tournament out of this conference, that’s just really a hard concept for me to have,” he said. “You guys have seen it. The parity in this league is unbelievable, man. The first seven teams, I believe anybody can beat anybody.”

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