STILLWATER – Finally, OSU basketball can breathe a little. Travis Ford just hopes his Cowboys don’t do it.
A desperate team a mere two weeks ago, OSU suddenly is playing like the team everyone figured it would all season. The Cowboys popped Kansas State 77-61 Monday night to officially announce their resurrection.
A season once on its death bed is breathing on its own and headed to the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys raised their winning streak to four and their March Madness stock to well above bubble level.
“Whenever you can kind of, I wouldn’t say be a lock, but there is a weight lifted off your shoulders,” said Phil Forte, who tossed in a game-high 23 points. “There’s been a lot of stress going on this past month with the losing streak and everything. But things are starting to click now. We’re starting to play better basketball.”
But Ford’s message was clear and sound. Just because the shine is back is no reason to lose the edge that lifted the Cowboys from despair.
“We’re in, I think, but … we don’t need to exhale,” Ford said. “We need to keep playing with a sense of urgency and understand what makes our team good. We got away from that.”
But now the Cowboys are back, with a sweep of Kansas and Kansas State in a 50-hour period, and while both were at Gallagher-Iba Arena, their beloved arena is also where OSU lost to Baylor and Iowa State even before Marcus Smart’s three-game suspension. So OSU indeed is playing much better than at any time since December.
“As crazy and amazing as the stretch we went through with the seven-game losing streak, the last four games is just as amazing,” Ford said.
Speaking of exhaling, Cowboy fans could do that early in the second half. OSU seemed in control of the Wildcats much of the game, but the way this season has gone, no one with a smidge of orange took anything for granted. Early second half, the game had tightened. Peril had returned.
Then Smart reached around and poked the ball from Kansas State’s Shane Southwell and took it coast-to-coast for a layup. On the ensuing possession, Forte intercepted a Southwell pass, wheeled around and went all the way for yet another basket. Suddenly, the Cowboys had an eight-point lead and never were in serious danger again.
“We made some great rotation steals,” Ford said. The Cowboy coaching staff had prepped the squad on certain available opportunities. With only one day between games, OSU didn’t so much practice as just go over scouting reports. But the Cowboys paid attention.
“They really made some good steals we told ‘em they might be able to get,” Ford said. “That separated it. And Phil Forte’s threes (Forte made six treys, including four in the second half) helped separate it.”
One more steal finally sealed it. K-State had climbed back within 60-53 and had the ball with five minutes left, but Le’Bryan Nash knocked the ball away from Thomas Gipson, Markel Brown took the ball all the way to the basket and was fouled. His two foul shots gave OSU a nine-point lead with 4:55 left, and the Cowboys spurted away.
“Second half, we decided to turn up our defense,” Smart said. “We just tried to come back and pressure ‘em. That’s kind of what happened. Just a team feeding off one another.”
And shooing away the chaos. The Cowboys are 20-10 overall, 8-9 in the Big 12. Gone is the speculation of Ford’s future, replaced by speculation of Oklahoma State’s NCAA seed. Gone is analysis of what’s eating Smart, replaced by the wonder of his all-around game (18 points, 5-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, five assists, three steals). Gone is the talk of what’s wrong, replaced by talk of what’s right.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.