WACO — Saturday’s Big 12 men’s basketball contest at the Ferrell Center may have featured schools based in Waco and Norman, Okla., but two of the stars that played a big part in the game had their beginnings in Harker Heights and Killeen.
Senior forwards Royce O’Neale and TaShawn Thomas were guaranteed one final head-to-head matchup as O’Neale’s 20th-ranked Baylor Bears beat Thomas’ No. 25 Oklahoma Sooners 69-58.
“It’s always good playing somebody you grew up with,” O’Neale said. “Me and TaShawn, we go way back since we were little. That’s like family to me, so I’m glad to see him doing good things, too.”
O’Neale finished with 10 points, shot 80 percent (4 for 5) from the field and hauled in five rebounds for the Bears. Thomas finished with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists for the Sooners.
O’Neale led Harker Heights to the Class 5A regional quarterfinals as a senior in 2010-11 and recorded 22 double-doubles for the Knights. He played two seasons at Denver University before transferring to Baylor.
O’Neale was one of only two seniors on the Bears roster, and his experience was key as Baylor closed the game out on a 20-9 run.
The teams played to four lead changes and four ties in the second half, but O’Neale helped seal the win on consecutive plays.
After a missed 3-pointer by Oklahoma’s Frank Booker, Baylor guard Kenny Chery hauled in the rebound, dribbled to half court and passed the ball to O’Neale down the left side of the lane. O’Neale immediately flipped the ball back to Baylor forward Rico Gathers for a right-handed dunk that extended Baylor’s lead to 56-49 with 3:49 remaining.
“We turned up our intensity,” O’Neale said. “It led to transition and easy baskets. We had dunk after dunk after dunk. Everyone was being unselfish and sharing the ball.”
O’Neale drained a 3-pointer on the next Baylor possession as time was winding down to extend the Bears lead to seven.
“It’s real big, especially early for us in conference,” O’Neale said about the win. “We know each game is critical, especially at home — you have to defend your home court.”
Thomas is in his first season at Oklahoma after transferring from Houston. As a senior at Killeen High, Thomas averaged 28 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks and was named All-Area and District 8-4A MVP.
Baylor visits Oklahoma State tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPNews.
The first time Thomas played Baylor, he went off for 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting and hauled in eight rebounds to help Oklahoma open conference play with a 73-63 home win. O’Neale scored four points and had five rebounds and three assists in that contest.
The Bears were going to limit Oklahoma’s inside game and opened in a zone defense, but Thomas got things going after halftime by scoring eight of his 10 points in the second half.
“I thought the second half, he finished a few of those that he didn’t quite finish in the first,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. “But the zone is tough when you get it down into 6 to 8 feet, and then of course, you have to finish it out from there.”
Thomas shot 66 percent (4 of 6) in the second half in a 7:31 stretch in the second half.
The former Kangaroo gave Oklahoma its first lead of the game with a jumper that capped a 6-0 Sooners run in the first two minutes of the second half.
Thomas got to the free throw line for the first time after stealing the ball from O’Neale, coming down into the paint and going up for a dunk attempt that was missed, but O’Neale was whistled for a foul. Thomas made both free throws to put the Sooners back ahead 42-40 with 11:11 remaining.
Thomas gave Oklahoma its final lead of the game with a layup 41 seconds later.
Oklahoma hosts Texas Tech at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on ESPNews.
Baylor and Oklahoma could meet again at the Big 12 Tournament on March 11-14 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.