The Trail Rider settles in Dallas

DALLAS – First, a confession: I had a sense of foreboding about Sunday's Big 12 championship game. It's tough enough to beat a quality foe twice in one season. Three times? I worried the odds might catch up with us. I should have known better with this team.

From the moment we arrived in the West End for lunch at Sonny Bryan's Barbecue, the signs were there: It was going to be a day for Orange – Bright Orange. In fact, downtown Dallas' entertainment district resembled Fair Park just before the Cotton Bowl – a mass of OSU orange, here to celebrate a season to remember. Inside the American Airlines Center, it's fair to say two-thirds of the near-capacity crowd wore our colors, a sight to behold. Stillwater South.

For fans, the Big 12 basketball tournament is a different breed from, say, bowl games, where we sit for the most part as a group. While some sections were filled with OSU faithful, most of us were sprinkled throughout the cavernous arena. Which means Cowboys sat hard by Longhorns, in cramped rows, alcoholic beverages served, a tough, physical game playing out below.

It was a recipe for tense moments – but the way we dominated the first half, you almost didn't know there was a Texan in the place. Imagine that: A bunch of Texans speechless. Who says miracles can't happen? Oh, they got a little rowdy in the second half, when the game tightened, but they quickly retreated into their bunkers when we blew the game open late and the mass exodus to the parking lots soon commenced.

I can't honestly say it was as satisfying as the sight of thousands in crimson polyester departing then-Lewis Field, midway through the third quarter of the 2002 Bedlam blowout, but it was enough to make a grown man misty-eyed.

The Missus was even more fired up, if that's possible. You always can tell when she has her game face on. Let me explain: We had two little boys seated next to us, decked out in their Texas regalia. They seemed as innocent as could be, oblivious to the fact they've been misguided so early in life into thinking burnt orange is the color of choice. Anyway, they were fun to watch as they helped themselves to one concession treat after another and shouted "SHOOT!" every time a Longhorn touched the ball, no matter how far from the rim or how bad the angle. But when the game tightened up in the second half, one of the boys came perilously close to whacking The Missus in the eye with his Texas flag. His parents quickly advised it was better to poke his brother instead. Credit these Longhorn parents: They knew a game face when they saw one.

I would have hated to give Texas the last laugh. When you're in such a cozy sporting environment, it's hard to be on the losing end. I know: This was our fifth consecutive trip to the Big 12 Tournament. We've sat alongside mouthy, obnoxious Iowa State fans when they beat us – and when they lost the game before ours. Even worse: We've watched the Normans – my friends refer to them as everything from Gooners to Dirt Burglars – win the danged thing.

My sense of foreboding returned early in the second half. I had told The Missus at halftime that we needed to extend – or at the very least, hold – our 12-point lead through the first five minutes. We didn't. With nine minutes left – and both I-Mac and J-Graham perched on the bench with four fouls each – I told her it was "gut-check" time. With the Texas fans suddenly poking their heads out, it felt like the game was perilously close to slipping away.

But the final nine minutes reminded me why this team is so special: Once again, someone stepped into the maelstrom and delivered. Could Terrence Crawford's performance be any more appropriate? You couldn't write a better script. If not the heart and soul of this team, he certainly reflects it. He persevered through one injury after another. He wept after clinching the regular season championship, recalling the teammates and friends lost in the Colorado plane crash. And in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, he took over, wrestling the hated Brian Boddicker, corralling key rebounds, scoring key points.

It was a performance for the ages, and it wasn't lost on the OSU faithful. As the trophies were presented and All-Tournament Teams announced, the loudest cheers were for the "silver fox" – the rhythmic chanting of "Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die" thundering through the arena. But it seemed to me there was a special emotion behind the cheers as an exhausted, battered warrior, Terrence Crawford, hobbled up the ladder to snip away a piece of victory nylon.

Minutes later, in the arena lobby, thousands of us pressed in around souvenir tables, hoping to land Big 12 Tournament championship t-shirts and hats. In the sea of orange, all but unnoticed, was Boone Pickens, whose $70 million gift – largest in university history – jump-started our football stadium remake. Wearing his orange, OSU Nike polo beneath a tan jacket, he waited patiently like everyone else, then bought several shirts, no doubt for his grandkids. As I watched, I couldn't help but recall one of my favorite Pickens' comments, made in the context of OSU standing toe-to-toe in competition against much larger schools such as Texas and Texas A&M. "We're not a big crowd," he said. "We've got to band together if we're going to win. We've got to march in lock-step." There he was, another proud alum, standing in line, relishing the moment. [By the way, the t-shirts and hats sold out before we could get to the front of the line.]

The drive back north on Interstate 35 was bumper-to-bumper much of the way, a victory parade with many cars adorned with OSU flags and door magnets, Posse decals and bumper stickers. About a half-hour outside of Ardmore, I called ahead to Two-Frogs Grill to see if they would take reservations. The girl who answered the phone said they don't take them, but not to worry – they weren't terribly busy, we could get right in. She didn't know what I did: Traffic was backed up for miles in a one-lane construction zone, many of the vehicles carrying hungry, happy basketball fans. Sure enough, by the time we arrived, we just did get one of the last booths. As we entered, a woman decked in her OSU gear was leaving. She grinned and said, "It looks like Halloween in there." She was right: Two-Frogs was like Eskimo Joe's or Hideaway on game day.

Well, now we catch our breath, re-pack our bags and head for Kansas City for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Dallas was nice the last two years, as Big 12 Tournament host, but I must confess: I'm something of a traditionalist. It just seems like big-time, post-season basketball ought to be played in Kansas City. We gambled and bought our Kansas City tickets a month ago, believing – praying? – it would be the Cowboys' first-round site. Now, with Kansas in the same pod, we're glad we did. Tickets won't be easy to come by. As we drove out of Dallas, listening to the NCAA tournament selection show on the radio, I couldn't help but feel our team has the opportunity of a lifetime. As fans, we're going to ride it as long and hard as we can – or at least until our wallets are drained.

One other thing: As we crossed the Red River into Oklahoma, The Missus pointed west – to one of the most beautiful sunsets you'll ever see. It reminded me of an old Texas bumper sticker that bragged: If God isn't a Longhorn, then why is the sunset burnt orange? On this day, the sunset wasn't a dull, burnt orange. It was a bright, bright orange. It was a great day to be a Cowboy.

(The Trail Rider is an OSU alum and your typical Cowboy fan in the stands, having followed OSU athletics since the mid-1960s.)

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