Tahlequah Daily Press

March 6, 2013

Sooners set to host West Virginia

By JOHN SHINN
CNHI

— NORMAN — It’s about 1 1/2 miles from Oklahoma’s campus to Lloyd Noble Center, and in the heart of winter it can be a lonely trek. However, it is a long walk Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald have made many times — together.

Neither had a car their first two years at OU. Pledger’s was back home in Chesapeake, Va. Fitzgerald, a Baltimore native, hadn’t learned to drive yet.

“We were both thugin’ it out our freshman and sophomore years,” Pledger said. “After the season, I finally got my car from Virginia out here. Up until then, we were walking everywhere. We tried to get rides from other people. Most of the time we were prideful and didn’t want to ask for rides, so we’d just walk.”

“We” is an important word to the tandem. Throughout the last four years, they’ve experienced everything together. Wins, losses, happiness, sadness and life, they experienced all those things side by side. At 8 tonight they’ll play their last game at Lloyd Noble Center when OU (19-9, 10-6 Big 12) faces West Virginia (13-16, 6-10).

They won’t be alone in that regard. It will be that last home game for Romero Osby and Sam Grooms as well. It’s a close-knit team and bonded senior class. You could see that before, during and after the Sooners’ victory over Iowa State on Saturday. The team celebrated Senior Day then. It was easier to get all the families in on the weekend.

Pledger and Fitzgerald, however, went through things the others didn’t. This year they’re experiencing everything that can be great about OU basketball. They appreciate it because they suffered through the worst of it, too. Both were part of Oklahoma’s highly touted 2010 recruiting class. The group included Tommy Mason-Griffin and Tiny Gallon. Those two were McDonald’s All-Americans. Pledger and Fitzgerald were the four-star recruits that were expected to fuel the Sooners’ success after Blake Griffin left for the NBA. After all, the program was coming off an Elite Eight appearance.

No signs of slowing down were immediately apparent. But OU basketball slammed into a tree that season. The team chemistry was combustible and blew up by February. It was a team of individuals all heading in different directions.

“I think after our freshmen year after seeing the stuff that was going on — all the individuals and all the negativity — that was when we really got close to each other,” Fitzgerald said.

Former coach Jeff Capel never recovered from it, and was fired at the end of the 2010-11 season. If ever there was a time to think about heading somewhere else and starting over, that was the time. Both admitted they talked about it — a lot on some of those long walks that car-less college students have to make.

“It was just talking to each other. We always joke around with each other to get our minds off of everything that’s going on around us,” Pledger said. “We would chill and watch movies all night and just chill.”

To see them now, you’d think the pair were childhood friends, but that wasn’t the case. They grew up about 200 miles apart, but were more rivals than anything else. They played on opposing AAU teams in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“I just knew him enough to say, hey, before I got here,” Pledger said.

The only thing that stuck out to Fitzgerald was Pledger going crazy from 3-point range against his team in the annual Nike Peach Jam Tournament one year in Augusta, Ga. The one thing they had in common  was they’d both decided to travel about 1,400 miles to come to OU. Both have had good college careers. Pledger is No. 2 on OU’s all-time list for 3-pointers made. Tonight’s game will be his 60th consecutive start. Fitzgerald is one of only 34 players to score 1,000 points in a Sooner uniform. He’s made 75 career starts, but accepted coming of the bench in his senior season. The reason: neither has ever played in the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners are in position to change that. They’re well inside the bubble with just two regular-season games left. After three years of tough losses and avoiding the television in March, they can fully appreciate the position OU is in. They’ve gone through a lot.

 “They have when you consider all the games and the coaching change and various things throughout their careers — the goods and bads and ups and downs,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “When you get to be a senior, you’ve been through a lot for sure. Their positives probably haven’t been as many as they would’ve liked. It’s good to see them have the kind of year they’re having and to see them, hopefully, go out on a positive note has been great.”

All the years didn’t have the triumphant memories of this one. What both have is a friendship cemented by shared experiences. The bond between Pledger and Fitzgerald is the one thing every college student hopes he or she will get.

“We came in as a package and we thought we’d leave as a package; that’s the way we thought of it,” Pledger said.