AMES, Iowa — OklahomaState’s difficult week took on a sense of urgency Wednesday night.
Looking to stay in the hunt for a share of a Big 12 Conference championship, the No. 13 Cowboys instead absorbed an 87-76 loss at IowaState, leaving them locked into third place in the league race.
Returning home for a Saturday date with No. 9 Kansas State, OSU may now need a win to avoid sharing third place.
And such a tie – with rival Oklahoma – would be way worse than any sisterly smooch.
Beyond that scenario, however, the Cowboys simply don’t want to limp to the finish.
“We want to finish out strong,” said OSU captain Markel Brown. “We don’t want to end on a bad note.
“In this league, every game is a big game. We’ll move on and play KansasState and give it all we’ve got. We’re still trying to get wins.”
To their credit, the Cowboys kept trying Wednesday night, even when it looked like such a lost cause.
The Cyclones, tied for the best home record in the Big 12 at 8-1, were playing before an emotionally charged sellout crowd on a Senior Night that featured six players in their final appearance at Hilton Coliseum.
Iowa State rode that emotion to an early 15-point lead and never trailed, yet had to fend off an OSU rally that made it a one-possession game three times in the final 6 1/2 minutes.
With Marcus Smart willing a comeback, scoring 16 of his game-high 24 points in the second half, the Cowboys got it to 67-64 at the 6:21 mark, 69-66 with 5:24 remaining and then 70-68 with 4:28 to play.
But the Cyclones kept knocking them back, either at the foul line – where they finished 26-of-35 – or on clutch baskets.
“I kept thinking, ‘If we get over this hump, maybe we can control the game a little bit better. We can control it with our offense,’” said OSU coach Travis Ford. “But we never could get over the hump.
“But give IowaState credit. They played very possessed to get a win. They were very good.”
The Cowboys, meanwhile, were not so good, especially early, when they fell behind 30-15 at the 7:22 mark of the first half. They trailed 39-29 at intermission and worked uphill throughout the final 20 minutes.
“It did feel like we were down a lot more than what we were,” Smart said. “And it felt like we were down forever.
“But this team has unbelievable heart. We fought. We knew we had a chance to win, just because of how we play defensively.”
The defense was there late, with Smart producing four of his five steals at crucial moments of OSU’s rally. Still, the Cyclones shot 51.9 percent from the floor and worked their spread offense for seven 3-pointers as well as driving layups, outscoring OSU 36-32 in the paint.
“I just thought we were a step slow tonight,” Ford said. “You knew IowaState was going to come out and play like a caged lion. They had a lot on the line. I didn’t think we responded to that very well.
“But you’ve got to give IowaState the credit. I thought they played really hard. They played more aggressive than they normally play. They had a lot of things clicking.”
Now that’s what the Cowboys will be seeking Saturday, when the No. 9 Wildcats visit Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Brown and Le’Bryan Nash added 14 each for the Cowboys, who shot just 41.5 percent from the floor. OSU missed its first nine 3-point tries and finished 4-of-23 from the arc.
Will Clyburn had 20 points to lead IowaState, which had five players finish in double figures.
At 12-5 in the Big 12, OSU owns a one-game lead over Oklahoma, which moved to 11-6 with a home win over West Virginia Wednesday night. Should the teams finish in a tie, the Sooners own the tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed in next week’s Big 12 Tournament.
Ford dismissed the sense of urgency notion, although his players suggested otherwise.
“We’re having a good year,” Ford said. “It was a tough game tonight. We’ve got a lot of momentum. We’ve won a lot of games lately.
“We want to play better than we did tonight, no question. I think that’s important. We don’t feel too good about ourselves right now. As I told our team, we shouldn’t. They shouldn’t feel good about tonight’s performance; about that alone, just tonight.
“We need to play better Saturday, but I think we're still in pretty good shape. We just need to play better.”