NORMAN- Before the game even started, the Oklahoma Sooners had a hill to climb hosting No. 9 Alabama.
An hour before the game was slated to tip, the Sooners announced that a pair of starters, Austin Reaves and Alondes Williams, would miss the game due to COVID-19 protocols.
But depth has been the strength of this Oklahoma team all season long. Down the two starters, No. 24-ranked OU dug deep to seal its third straight win over a top-10 opponent, topping the Crimson Tide 66-61.
OU head coach Lon Kruger said the Sooners didn't have much notice that Reaves and Williams would miss the game.
"We knew for sure just prior to practice yesterday," Kruger said after the game. "Obviously every team would like to be at full strength every ballgame, but you know, we weren't. I thought other guys stepped in there and picked up the slack."
What OU lacked in personnel, the Sooners made up for in energy. In the first 4 1/2 minutes of the game, Oklahoma forced six Crimson Tide turnovers and jumped out to an early 11-2 lead. Defensive specialist Elijah Harkless led the charge, nabbing two steals during the early run.
With no Reaves, sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon was handed the sole keys to the Sooner offense. Harmon, who has averaged 18.3 points per game in the four-game win streak leading up to Saturday, shined. He led all scorers with 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting, adding five rebounds and two assists.
"This is a strange year," senior forward Brady Manek said. "You can take two of our leaders, two of our players out and we can still come up with a win like that against a really good Alabama team."
Just as Kansas and Texas did, the top-10 ranked Crimson Tide absorbed Oklahoma’s early punch and worked their way back into the game.
Harkless had to head to the bench after getting called for two early fouls, and Alabama went on a run, drilling 3 after 3 to push its lead to as many as five before intermission.
"EJ (Harkless) is just always aggressive," Kruger said. "He got those two fouls midway in the first half, I thought that really hurt us.
"He went back in and we took the lead into halftime, so I thought he was key in that."
The Sooner guards found their shot toward the end of the half, as Harmon, Harkless and Umoja Gibson got hot and helped OU close the half on a 15-9 run to take a three-point lead into the break.
A familiar playmaker stepped up for the Sooners in the second half.
Manek has struggled since missing 12 days in quarantine due to COVID-19. He couldn’t buy a bucket again to start this game, making just 1-of-7 shots.
Then, with 12 1/2 minutes left, everything changed.
Getting fed the ball in the restricted area under the basket, the savvy veteran pump-faked twice to get a pair of Crimson Tide defenders in the air. Absorbing the contact, Manek finished off the lay-up, drew the foul and converted his free throw. On the next trip down the floor, Manek nailed a deep 3-pointer, his first make of the game from behind the arc.
"Finally seeing that 3 go in was good," Manek said. "Hit the front of the rim about eight times it felt like and I needed to hit one, hit it at a big time."
Kruger said it was no coincidence Manek played better today as he's looking better from a physical standpoint.
"Yesterday was the first time in practice he looked like himself from a health standpoint," Kruger said.
Manek rallied to finish with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting after the slow start.
"He stepped up big tonight," Harkless said of Manek. "He might not have scored 30 points, but he did some real big senior leadership things. He got big stops, big rebounds in the right spots at the right time."
Harmon and Iwuakor were two of the first to greet Manek, gettin him fired up after his first bucket of the second half went it. Manek said it felt good to have his teammates in his corner after he struggled through a portion of the game.
"Teammates have been great," Manek said. "A lot of guys after the game told me how good I was playing and it just feels good. We've got a lot of good guys on this team."
Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide would have one final push. With 3:44 left in the game, a pair of free throws put Alabama up by one.
But with the teams battling back and forth, the Sooners defense sealed the victory.
Harkless himself put the cherry on top, sinking a fade-away jumper as the shot clock wound down with 19 seconds left to push the OU lead to four.
"I ended up kind of losing the ball, you know, so it wasn't as pretty as I would have liked," Harkless said of his game-sealing shot after the game.
"If somebody wants to play one-on-one with me, we'll take any matchup in the country and we'll be confident with that."
The impact defender did his part on the offensive end of the floor, finishing with 14 points, his highest output in a Sooner uniform. Harkless added three steals and five rebounds to help cap off the upset.
The win carried historic significance: according to ESPN Stats & Info, it was just the third time in the AP Poll era (1948-49) that a team has beaten four AP Top 10 opponents in one month, and hasn't been done since 1974.
The run doesn’t let up for the Sooners. Now, they’ll have a two-day turnaround before heading to Lubbock to take on No. 10-ranked Texas Tech on Big Monday. The Red Raiders beat Oklahoma 69-67 in their first meeting in December.
OU's run of good results is only the beginning for where this season could take the Sooners, Harkless said.
"Definitely getting more and more comfortable brick by brick each game," he said. "I can't wait to see where we're at in March."