Phil Forte stood at the free throw line Thursday night, game against Baylor on the line, game tied 72-72 with just 2.9 ticks left.
Marcus Smart couldn’t watch.
Well, wouldn’t watch, not out of any fear, but more as some sort of long-standing ritual.
“It’s a little thing I do,” Smart said of his look-away with Forte. “I’ve been playing with Phil my whole life. In close games like that, when he’s been at the free throw line, it’s just a tradition I do to turn away and I guess relieve some of the pressure off of him, looking for his teammates’ eyes and having to make a big shot at a big-time moment.”
And Thursday’s foul shots definitely qualified as a big moment, compounded for Forte, who had just committed the grievous mistake of fouling Baylor’s Nick Franklin on a 3-point shot, which went in, resulting in an and-one free throw that produced a four-point play and the tie – the Bears’ only tie in a game they never led.
Yet it was the perfect spot for Forte. Two shots to give the Cowboys the lead.
Better yet, two free throws.
So Forte did what he does better than anybody in the Big 12 and better than almost everybody in the nation.
He made the free throws, the decisive points in the Cowboys’ 74-72 win.
When the whistle blew, OSU’s Michael Cobbins didn’t see which of his teammates had been fouled. But he was soon relieved.
“I knew we were going to shoot some free throws,” Cobbins said. “And once I saw who it was, I was glad, because I knew he was going to knock them down.”
Forte has made 73 of his 80 foul shots this season: 91.3 percent. That figure would rank third nationally, except Forte’s average of 2.4 made free throws a game ranks just short of the NCAA minimum of 2.5.
“At that point, I just had to forget about what happened the past 30 seconds,” Forte said of a stretch that saw him suddenly thrust into a potential goat role. “I’m thinking, ‘If I make one free throw, we win the game.’ And that’s with all the drama that happened.”
In fairness to Forte, it was fitting he had the opportunity to atone for his previous sin.
Before and after his foul, he’d given the Cowboys a major boost off the bench, scoring 14 points on 3-of-5 shooting – 2-of-3 on 3-pointers – and adding two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 32 minutes.
And as Baylor’s Pierre Jackson prepared to launch a final shot for the win, it was Forte, getting a hand up to alter Jackson’s attempt that just missed off the rim.
“I was very relieved,” Smart said, “because Phil’s always down on himself more than anybody. That right there just took away all that criticism, his own criticism, from his shoulders.”