Cowgirl turned Sooner: Lexy Keys remains connected to Stillwater

Cowgirl turned Sooner: Lexy Keys remains connected to Stillwater

As Oklahoma’s veteran guard returns to Gallagher-Iba Arena this weekend, the relationships and the home Lexy Keys found at Oklahoma State remain close to her heart.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Feb 2, 2024, 10:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Feb 2, 2024, 10:00am CST

NORMAN — Food can tether you to a place. Time passes and change creates distance, but the brain always retreats to the smells, tastes and memories of somewhere once familiar.

Lexy Keys’ mind drifts to Stillwater here and then.

Oklahoma’s senior guard hasn’t been back since she traded Oklahoma State for Norman through the transfer portal last spring. Still, in the midst of her debut season in the Sooners’ backcourt, Keys recently found herself yearning for a particular steakhouse 85 miles away — a favorite of certain members of the OSU faithful.

“Man, FreddiePauls sounds really good right now,” she told her fiance.

There are other ways Keys — one in the recent stream of Bedlam stars to cross the bitter in-state rivalry — remains linked to OSU, too.

Stillwater is still the place that caught Keys when she needed a place to land in 2020.

It’s where she found the support of a coaching staff and a program that became the platform for a starring role and 71 starts in 88 games with the Cowgirls from 2020-23.

For Keys, OSU — its fanbase and its community — will always be the place that became a second home two-plus hours from her family Tahlequah. 

“Those people supported me through ups and downs,” she said this week. “I’m excited to go back and see some familiar faces. Those are the people I’ll talk to for many years down the road whenever I’m out of my career.”

This weekend, Keys returns to Stillwater and Gallagher-Iba Arena 20 starts into her OU career. 

Averaging 8.6 points on 40.7% shooting, she has become a trusted, veteran rudder for Jennie Baranczyk. The five-foot-seven guard was a guiding force in the January turnaround that saw the Sooners close the month second in the Big 12 standings. On Wednesday, Keys scored 10 points in 26 minutes and was part of the story on the night OU (14-6, 8-1 Big 12) knocked off No. 2 Kansas State inside Lloyd Noble Center.

“She always just plays really hard,” Baranczyk said recently. “And yet, (Keys) has this really steady presence on our team. It’s very obvious that we’ve stepped up a lot defensively because of her.”

At 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN+), Keys will be back at OSU on the other side of a rivalry she knows well. As Keys prepares for the first of two Bedlam games inside 21 days, the program, the relationships and the home she found in Stillwater are still close to her heart.

 

Oklahoma State guard Lexy Keys (15) works past Kansas State guard Serena Sundell (4) in the first half during a women’s college basketball game between the Oklahoma State Cowgirls (OSU) and the Kansas State Wildcats at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.Osu Vs Kansas State

Lexy Keys became an important piece of the puzzle for Oklahoma State over her three seasons with the Cowgirls from 2020-23. (Nathan J. Fish/The Oklahoman)

‘A piece of home’

Christy Keys has reminded her daughter over and over: control what you can control.

Keys’ four-year college basketball experience that has only reinforced that notion.

Keys tallied 1,806 career points over four seasons at Tahlequah Sequoyah High School. She was named area MVP four times. With Keys on the floor, the school’s tradition-rich girls basketball team claimed its fifth and sixth state championships in program history.

After graduation, Keys landed with the basketball program at UT-Arlington in 2020. She was on campus for little more than a month before UTA coach Krista Gerlich left for Texas Tech.

Weeks into her college career, Keys had a decision to make and hit the transfer portal that August before ever logging a minute in college basketball. In Stillwater, Cowgirls coach Jim Littell gathered his staff to discuss the prospect of a late-summer addition.

“We had a spot open,” said Bill Annan, who spent 13 seasons as an assistant at OSU. “We got a phone call that she was interested in an opportunity at Oklahoma State. We talked about it and obviously it worked out really well for us.”

Keys enrolled at OSU in the first week of September with clearance to compete with the Cowgirls in the 2020-21 season. Suddenly, she had a new opportunity with a major basketball program in her home state. And, just as suddenly, Keys was on a new campus, still far from home and living in the isolating throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keys’ late arrival left her playing catch up on the court and in the classroom. Her unique circumstance also left her without a roommate. Lockdown restrictions and team COVID-19 policies made Stillwater — with its small-town charm — sometimes feel too small early on.

“I wasn’t homesick — but I was missing familiarity and missing the kind of people that I could talk to about anything,” Keys said. “It was a hard time. But a lot of good came out of it.”

On the court, Keys settled in as a 16-game starter in her freshman season, recording 25.7 minutes per game for a team that reached the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament in 2021. 

And in time, Stillwater became comfortable, too.

Keys bonded quickly with forward Taylen Collins, a teammate she had competed against in the Oklahoma youth basketball scene. She got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Stillwater chapter. Within the program, Keys found support in the connections she forged with Littell’s staff.

Keys still texts regularly with former Cowgirls director of player development Jack Easley. She swapped life updates with Annan, now an assistant at Oral Roberts, when the Golden Eagles visited Norman last November. Keys is still close with Littell and his family; she attended his daughter Jaci’s wedding last summer in Tulsa.

“They’re all really special to me,” Keys said. “Those are relationships that I’m still very thankful for.”

Steadily, Keys became an important piece of the Cowgirls’ puzzle, too, making starts in 53 of her final 58 games at OSU from 2021-23. With her rising stature in the program came another connection, this one with a community around the program that adored her. 

“Lexy developed quite a fanbase because of who she was and how she presented herself and what she was about,” Annan said. “She earned that even more over time.”

Keys gained attention with her shooting touch and the energy she brought on defense. 

That ingratiated Keys with the Stillwater faithful. Her routine postgame treks into the stands after the alma mater played — when Keys signed autographs and conversed with familiar faces in the crowd — did the same.

In a community Keys will say became “a piece of home”, she felt the love, too.

“You go to Walmart and people recognize you — that’s how it was back home,” she said. “It was an awesome feeling being in this place that really felt like that.”

 

Oklahoma Sooners guard Lexy Keys (15) makes a 3-pointer during a women's college basketball game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Tech Lady Raiders at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

Lexy Keys admired Jennie Barancyzk’s system from afar before joining the Sooners for the 2023-24 season. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Crossing Bedlam lines

The orbit around OSU’s women’s basketball program became a home. Then, after her junior season with the Cowgirls, Keys left it for Norman.

“You have to control what you can control,” Keys said. “Basketball honestly is a business and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t understand on the outside looking in. There’s a lot of change and it’s not all bad. You learn. You grow. And you take it in stride.”

Change came for Keys at UTA before she ever played a college game. It arrived again in March 2022 when Littell and OSU mutually agreed to part ways after 11 seasons. 

Keys led the Cowgirls in minutes in 2022-23 under Littell’s replacement, second-year OSU coach Jacie Hoyt, but set out in search of something different for the next and final chapter of her college career last spring.

“I got a lot of calls when she hit the transfer portal,” Annan said. “Coaches asked about her. I told them that Lexy Keys is a prime example of a young lady who made herself a basketball player at the Power 5 level.”

Programs across the Big 12 swarmed Keys when she landed in the portal. Setting Bedlam ties aside, OU was a seamless destination. 

In Norman, Keys could continue to represent her home state and play in front of friends and family regularly. She saw similarities to Sequoyah in the tradition and history of the Sooners’ program. While OU went 4-0 against OSU in Baranczyk’s first two seasons, Keys had admired the style her teams played with from afar.

“You almost hated going against them every time because they were so hard to guard and the system was so freeing,” Keys said. “You wondered what it would be like to play in Jennie’s system.”

Keys committed to the Sooners last April conscious of what it meant to cross Bedlam lines. 

She’d already witnessed the vitriol former OSU pass rusher Trace Ford faced after he jumped to OU in late 2022. Later in the year, she’d see the fallout of softball star Kelly Maxwell’s move from Stillwater to Norman.

Relative to Ford and Maxwell, the reaction to Keys’ move was muted. Still, she braced herself as she completed the Bedlam swap and stayed off social media.

“I wasn’t wrapped up in it,” Keys said. “I knew what to expect. You hope it doesn’t come but you can’t really control any of it. People don’t always understand it when you do what’s best for you.”

Keys doesn’t know what kind of reception she’ll receive inside Gallagher-Iba Arena on Saturday. 

That uncertainty hasn’t shaken the excitement she feels about returning to a familiar place, seeing old friends and diving back into a rivalry that so perfectly suits the particular edge Keys brings through her game. 

It won’t shake the feelings Keys will carry with her back to OSU this weekend, either. 

“I was there for three years,” she said. “I was able to really dig into the community and connect with a lot of people. “I’ll always be very, very thankful for my time in Stillwater.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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