Stepping out of conference play sat well with 10th-ranked Texas Tech and No. 24 Oklahoma. Now two of the hottest teams jockeying for position in a crowded Big 12 Conference race take aim at seeing who can use their weekend success to build some momentum as February begins.
The Sooners and Red Raiders tangle in a big Monday showdown in Lubbock, Texas, and both teams figure to bring a jolt of confidence into the game.
In the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday, Oklahoma knocked off 9th-ranked Alabama 66-61, while Texas Tech stunned LSU in Baton Rouge by scoring the last 12 points of the game in the last minute for a 76-71 victory.
For the Sooners (11-4, 6-3 Big 12), the victory was the latest in a historical stretch: They have beaten three consecutive top-10 opponents and are just the third team since the Associated Press poll began in 1948-49 with four regular-season victories over top-10 foes in the same calendar month. The last was North Carolina State in 1974.
"It's huge," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said of his team's latest conquest. "Anytime you can win a game like that is big from a resume standpoint, big from a confidence standpoint, momentum. It's continuing to move in the right direction. Those wins, you never take those for granted."
Especially in a rematch against a team that escaped with a narrow victory the first time around.
Texas Tech's stirring late-game rally against LSU was its sixth game in the last six weeks settled in the closing seconds or overtime. The Red Raiders (12-5, 4-4) are 3-3 in those games, including a 69-67 triumph at Oklahoma on Dec. 22 when three Sooners offensive rebounds from the paint failed to go through the net right before time expired.
The Sooners dropped two of their next three league games but have reeled off four victories since then.
A major storyline that could impact Monday night is whether two OU starters are cleared to return from the team's COVID-19 protocol, including All-Big 12 candidate Austin Reaves. He and Alondes Williams were both out of action against Alabama and their status for the Texas Tech game will not be determined until the day of the game.
Regardless of who is available for the Sooners, it's a safe bet the Red Raiders are bracing for another nip-and-tuck battle. Texas Tech is uncharacteristically 1-3 at home in Big 12 play and needs a victory to stay in the top half of the league standings.
"Every night is a difficult night," Red Raiders guard Mac McClung said. He scored 22 points Saturday, including two huge 3-pointers during the 12-0 game-winning dash to the finish line. It was his fourth straight game with 22 or more.
"We're just trying to grow. We know our potential and where it can be, and we have to close out games."
Hard to imagine the lesson learned against LSU won't be something that Texas Tech can learn from.
Oklahoma presents a different challenge than the Tigers. Reaves, De'Vion Harmon and Brady Manek -- who has also missed some time in COVID-19 protocol -- are as talented an offensive trio as there is in the Big 12.
The Sooners average 76.9 points a game, tied for second in the league, led by Reaves (15.8 points per game). He also leads the Sooners with 72 steals.
With Reaves out, Harmon paced the offense vs. Alabama with 18 points and Elijah Harkless accounted for 14 -- the last two on a tough jumper from the lane that sealed the victory.
"It was great," Kruger said of Harkless' shot. "It wasn't picture by the book, necessarily. He had to kind of pivot a couple of times. The toughness to hang in there and get it off -- it was huge. Huge play by E.J., and credit to him."
--Field Level Media