‘It was a classic’: OU-OSU 1997 had all the ingredients of Bedlam basketball greatness

‘It was a classic’: OU-OSU 1997 had all the ingredients of Bedlam basketball greatness

The first Bedlam men’s basketball meeting in January 1997 had everything that made the basketball rivalry so special and all the same elements the Sooners and Cowboys will say goodbye to Saturday afternoon.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Feb 23, 2024, 6:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Feb 23, 2024, 6:00am CST

(Eli Lederman’s “OU Week in Review” newsletter hits inboxes every Saturday morning. Subscribe here.)

Oklahoma had already squandered a 14-point, second-half lead and Sooners guard Nate Erdmann had already poured in his game-high 29 points. Oklahoma State’s Chianti Roberts had already spent nearly 15 minutes on the bench and sent the contest to overtime with a close-range bank shot with seven-tenths of a second remaining in regulation.

The 6,381 packed inside Gallagher-Iba Arena had already been roaring for hours. Millions more had been watching from home on a Monday night via the nationally televised ESPN broadcast.

All of that came before the final seconds of overtime on Jan. 27, 1997. 

That’s when Roberts — described that night by the Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel as “the state’s most notorious poor foul shooter” — buried a pair of free throws to ice the first Bedlam men’s basketball game in the Big 12 era.

Oklahoma State 73. Oklahoma 72. 

“It was a classic,” Roberts said this week. “I don’t know what day it was, but some kids went out on The Strip and had a blast that night.”

Eddie Sutton called the game one of the 20 best he’d ever coached. OU’s Kelvin Sampson considered it a national showcase of the state’s basketball talent. Writing from an increasingly distant era of the sport, Tramel, now with Sellout Crowd, summed it up succinctly.

“Great college basketball game?” he wrote. “No doubt about it.”

The Big 12’s inaugural Bedlam men’s basketball game was good because it had Sutton and Sampson, Erdmann and Roberts, Adrian Peterson and Lou Moore, Brett Robisch and Corey Brewer. 

And it was good because this particular occasion — more than 27 years in the past now — featured all the things that have made Bedlam basketball a treasure in the Big 12 era; the very same elements that are at stake as the Sooners and Cowboys enter for their final Big 12 meeting Saturday afternoon in Stillwater. 

“The atmosphere at the old Gallagher-Iba was incredible and you knew everyone on the other side,” said Renzi Stone, a freshman center at OU during the 1996-97 season. “You had to beat those guys. That’s why those games were always so important.”

‘It’ll be different’

The first Big 12 Bedlam meeting saw Roberts and Erdmann go toe-to-toe and ended with the Cowboys completing a come-from-behind victory. 

The last scheduled conference bout comes Saturday in Stillwater (3 p.m. on ESPN2), featuring Porter Moser’s postseason-chasing Sooners (18-8, 6-7 Big 12) and Mike Boynton’s Cowboys (12-14, 4-9), who enter the weekend riding back-to-back wins over BYU and Cincinnati.

All told, Big 12 Bedlam contests have accounted for roughly 25% of the games in the rivalry’s all-time men’s basketball series, and they’ve tended to be close. Of the 61 Bedlam games since the Big 12 opened play in 1996, 24 of them — nearly 40% — have been decided by five points or fewer. 

The annual pair of Bedlam men’s basketball games have existed as one of the state’s most reliable fixtures across the Big 12 era and long before it, too. Yet, as OU prepares to leave the conference and Bedlam behind on its way to the SEC this summer, nothing about the future is guaranteed. 

Moser and Boynton have discussed the logistics of a non-conference series between the programs. Existing non-conference contracts and other hurdles could make a 2024-25 Bedlam game difficult, but there’s plenty of optimism the Sooners and Cowboys will find a way to meet again soon. 

With a pair of seemingly willing parties, the picture of Bedlam basketball’s future looks rosier than the outlook for, say, Bedlam football. Still, the players who lived the emotions and the energy of Jan. 27, 1997, know it will never quite be the same as it was.

“It’ll be different,” said Peterson, the guard who became the Cowboys’ third all-time leading scorer from 1995-99. “Not to have it marked on the calendar — year in, year out — it’s going to change.”

A heated rivalry

OU and OSU’s first Big 12 meeting had all the ingredients of Bedlam basketball greatness.

For one, the teams were familiar with each other. Between the two rosters, there were eight players from Oklahoma. Another six hailed from Arkansas. Four more came from Texas. 

“We all played through the AAU circuits and pickup ball,” said Robert Allison, the former OU guard. “We knew everybody.”

For another, the respective teams were led by two of the finest men’s basketball coaches of their respective generations with Sutton and Sampson calling the shots.

“The coaching was excellent on both sides,” Stone said. “Eddie and Kelvin saw the game similarly. They had different strategies, but they saw competition and defense the same. It made for some good basketball.” 

The Sooners will venture 86 miles north Saturday afternoon needing to put finishing touches on their NCAA Tournament resume with five regular season games remaining. OSU enters two games below .500, staring down a third-straight spring without a postseason appearance.

It wasn’t all that different when the teams met in Stillwater in late January nearly 30 years ago. 

Those Sooners, led by Erdmann’s scoring, would go on to be a No. 11 seed in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Sutton’s Cowboys were on their way to a forgettable eighth-place finish in the league standings, one year away from the first of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1998-2000.

As has often been the case in this rivalry, form and caliber seemed to go out the door when the Sooners stepped into Gallagher-Iba Arena for the nationally televised matchup on a chilly Monday night.

“I think about how intense it was, and it didn’t matter whose record was better,” Peterson said. “The game was just totally different. It was just a heated rivalry.”

It was on those terms that the Sooners and Cowboys clashed for the first time in the Big 12 in what became a battle between Erdmann and Roberts, OSU’s senior forward.

Neither started especially well. 

Erdmann, a three-time transfer who landed in Norman in 1995, shot 44.6% from the field in the 1996-97 season. In Stillwater, he opened 0-for-4 as the Cowboys took an early lead. 

Roberts, meanwhile, picked up three fouls in the opening 5:12 and spent the final 14:48 of the first half on the bench. 

OU took a 32-30 lead into the halftime break.

“If I’m not in foul trouble, I play all 45 minutes,” Roberts said. “I’m not coming out of the game.”

Roberts played every minute of the second half and overtime, picked up only one more foul and walked off the court a hero. But the opening stages of the second half belonged to Erdmann, who scored 15 of the Sooners’ first 21 points out of the locker room on his way to a 29-point effort on 10-of-25 shooting. 

“He could pull up midrange and shoot the 3-pointer,” Peterson said. “He could do everything. You had to pay attention to him at all times.”

Roberts recalled: “He was relentless. Every possession, every time he touched it, he was trying to score. He was just a threat to score. That’s what made him so tough.”

After back-to-back baskets from Erdmann put the Sooners up 53-39 with 10:08 remaining, OU’s leading man went cold. Erdmann would connect on just one of his last six field goal attempts over the final 15 minutes of regulation and overtime. 

That was about the same time Roberts took over.

OSU’s veteran forward scored eight points over the final eight minutes of regulation. The Cowboys scored on 12 of their final 14 possessions. And after OU’s Eduardo Najera missed a free throw with 7.8 seconds left in regulation, OSU took a timeout and set up for one final possession, trailing 61-59.

Roberts remembers the play Sutton drew up by the name “triple.” The primary design was for Peterson, OSU’s best shooter, to come off a triple-screen with an open jumper. If that failed, Robisch would come off a double-screen as the next option. After that, it was up to Roberts.

Twenty-seven years later, Roberts isn’t sure he ever intended to pass to one of his teammates. After rolling the ball to midcourt, Roberts drove straight at Sooners forward Lou Moore, absorbed contact and banked in a three-footer through contact.

“Adrian was not open, and Robisch came back the other way and he’s not open,” Roberts recalled. “I shake and bake Lou, get to the paint and I make the shot and it sends us to overtime.”

OSU never trailed over the final 2:23 of overtime, and there were 11.6 seconds on the clock when Roberts, who finished his career shooting 50.8% from the foul line, drew a pair of free throws with the score level at 69-69.

“I was a notoriously horrible free throw shooter,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t because I had bad technique. It was a mental block. But I was always better in clutch moments than any other time.”

OU attempted to ice Roberts with a timeout. In the huddle, Sutton initially only gave his players instructions on what to do after a made free throw and offered his star player the ultimate reassurance. 

“Chianti, you’re going to make the free throws,” Roberts recalled Sutton telling him. “You’re a competitor.”

Oozing with confidence from the foul line, Roberts hit both free throws and OSU closed a memorable Bedlam victory.

“The only thing I can remember is Coach (Sutton) grabbed me and said, ‘Chianti, I believe in you,’” Roberts told reporters that night.

It wasn’t until a few years later that Roberts learned the full story.

Focused on his free throws, Roberts had left the huddle early and headed to the foul line. That’s when Sutton gave the rest of the Cowboys instructions for what to do in the event of a miss. 

It was a 50/50 proposition at worst. 

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world because of Coach Sutton,” Roberts said. “And he’s talking to them about what to do when I miss them. It was one of those classic stories.”

A piece of the identity

Roberts left the arena that night with 18 points, three rebounds and a piece of a statistic he still holds onto dearly. 

“I got a healthy winning record against OU,” he said. “Those games mean more than others.” 

Want proof? Stone, who later became a member of the OU Board of Regents, has his own reasons for keeping that particular loss in his mind.

“We went (4-5) in my four years against OSU, and that’s the one that got away,” he said. “We should have won that game.”

Through wins and losses, Bedlam memories still burn strong for those who lived them.

Sooners like Stone and Allison remember relishing the opportunity to play in front of hostile crowds in Stillwater. Peterson misses the pregame anticipation — and the newspaper clippings, radio gasbagging and trash talk — that always preceded his battles with OU. 

Some even spawned friendships on the other side of Bedlam. Roberts and Moore, the two players at the center of the play that sent the Jan. 1997 game to overtime, later grew close while playing together in Oklahoma City’s pickup basketball scene. 

“There was a year where we were hanging out every day,” Roberts said. “Going to clubs. Kicking it and just being kids.”

On both sides of the rivalry, there’s regret over what’s to come.

OU and OSU may well play again. Maybe they’ll rotate campuses each year; perhaps they’ll play at a neutral site in Oklahoma City or Tulsa. But the game, and the basketball rivalry, won’t be the same when the programs disappear from each other’s conference schedules. 

“I think you lose a significant part of your identity when you take that game away,” Roberts said.

Stone explained: “It stings not to be able to play those guys twice a year with something on the line,”

Once more, the Sooners and Cowboys meet again on Saturday afternoon. For those 40 minutes in Stillwater, it will feel like everything is on the line, at least once more.

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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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