And through 35 minutes, it looked as if that moment had arrived. But the Cowboys weaknesses were revealed on Monday night in GIA, as the No. 22 Cowboys fell to No. 10 Gonzaga, 69-68.
But among those disappointed by the loss, few will share the pain as much as Marcus Smart – the freshman point guard who carried the Cowboys behind 23 points, 6 assists and two rebounds. But it was his final two free throw shots with the Cowboys trailing 67-65 with 8.7 seconds remaining that would have meant the most – both clanged off the rim.
“So far, I’ve been shooting the ball from the free-throw line very well," Smart said. "In my mind, I went up there and was confident, but sometimes, it just doesn’t go the way you want it. That’s what happened tonight. I don’t really know what to say.”
Up two points, David Stockton added two Bulldog free throws to put it out of reach. Phil Forte’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer was the meaningless highlight to a heartbreaker.
The Cowboys had a five-game winning streak broken as they drop to 10-2. Gonzaga improves to 13-1.
In the first half, Gonzaga was up by as many as 11 points, behind the hot hand of sophomore guard Kevin Pangos, who led all scorers at the break with 18 points. But the Cowboys kept it close. Smart took a drive end-to-end for a mid-range jumper to put the Cowboys up a basket with 1:43 left in the half.
The Cowboys had to feel confident entering the second half. Gonzaga’s top big man, Kelly Olynyk, didn’t attempt a shot or record a rebound in the first half. With two fouls, he stayed on the bench.
But Olynyk resurged in the second half, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. With Phil Jurick and Michael Cobbins in foul trouble, the Cowboys had no answer. Gonzaga had 18 second-chance points. OSU had 8.
“They just destroyed us on the glass, and that’s the bottom line," Ford said. "We pretty much let one guy control the game in the second half. And in a close game like it was, the team that’s getting the easier baskets is probably going to win.
"They were getting easy baskets and put backs, and we had to work so hard for ours. It goes back to the rebounding. We just didn’t get any physicality around the rim."
Smart and junior forward Markel Brown (16 points, 3 blocks, 2 assists) fought back in the second half. Another Smart jumper put the Cowboys up by three points with 4:14 remaining. But the Cowboys couldn’t contain the Bulldogs inside, putting OSU in a dire situation with less than a minute on the clock.
After carrying the team nearly all game, Smart was unable to convert when it mattered most.
“When you’re a great player like Marcus Smart you’re gong to be put in those situations, and sometimes it’s going to go your way and sometimes it’s not," Ford said. "But that had nothing to do ... there were so many other plays in that game. We turned the ball over at crucial times late in the game.
"But I thought Marcus played a great game. We wouldn’t have been in the position we were in if not for some of the things he did. He’ll shake that off because he’ll be in that position again at some point."
But the silver lining in this loss was thick. Gonzaga had rolled through four Big 12 opponents already this season, and should be a high seed in the NCAA tournament come March.
“I feel like we gained a lot of trust in each other," Smart said. "We learned that we can play with high-caliber types of teams. Gonzaga is a great team. They beat a few great teams, and for us to come out and keep it that close, that just proved a lot to ourselves and to a lot of people. Oklahoma State has a chance. It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, but we’re going to take this as a learning lesson and get ready for conference play.”
Three Cowboys finished the night in double figures. Forte rounded out the group with 15 points, all on 3-pointers, after starting the game 0-for-2 from behind the arc.
With Brian Williams expected to return from his wrist injury sometime in January, the future is still bright for this Cowboys team, but this loss will haunt Ford and the Pokes all year long.
"We had better bounce back quickly," Ford said. "This was a mental, physical game. We've got to get back and bounce back quickly. The guys expended a lot of energy out there and we have a tired team in the locker room back there.
"We competed. We played hard. We got beat by a better team, but we still think we should have won at home. We didn't make the plays. They made the plays. Give Gonzaga credit. They're a really good basketball team."
UP NEXT: Kansas State
The Cowboys travel to No. 25 KSU (6-5) at 12:30 pm Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena. / TV: Big 12 Network / RADIO: KSPI 93.7 FM