SAN DIEGO — Everyone could see that time had run out on Oklahoma State’s basketball season. Too big of a deficit. Too few seconds on the clock.
But the clock hadn’t run out entirely — and that meant Marcus Smart wasn’t done.
Phil Forte missed a shot with 19 seconds left Friday afternoon, and here came Smart. He attacked the rim at Viejas Arena. He crashed into would-be Gonzaga rebounders. And somehow, he managed to get a hand on the ball and tip it toward the rim.
Didn’t go in.
Wasn’t pretty either.
But on an afternoon that he played his final game in a Cowboy uniform, this was the final image in a quintessential Smart performance. Rarely beautiful. Hardly a work of art. But always gritty and attacking and full speed ahead.
That is how will remember Smart.
Yes, another one-and-done trip to the NCAA Tournament is a downer for the Cowboys, who were done in this time by the Zags 85-77. But the Cowboy faithful can be assured that their superstar gave everything he had to the orange and black.
“I most definitely think I left it out there,” Smart said. “This team left it out there. We fought to the end.”
Smart was the catalyst for that. As with everything that has happened with this team the past two years, he has been the leader. Set the tone on the floor. In the locker room. On the bus. In practice.
His impact cannot be understated.
Neither can his competitiveness.
Cowboy coach Travis Ford calls Smart the ultimate competitor, and there were times Friday when it seemed that fire might boil over. The game was physical. The officials were whistle happy. And the look on Smart’s face let everyone in the arena know that he was not pleased.
But he never blew a gasket. Instead, he took out his frustrations on Gonzaga.
When OSU came out of the halftime locker room charging hard, Smart was at the front. He assisted on the Cowboys’ first three baskets of the second half as they cut a 12-point deficit to five.
Then, there were free throws. And more assists. And a jumper here and there.
His final stat line ended up having lots of wows: 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, six steals.
But there were warts, too. He had picked up his fourth foul with more than three minutes remaining and had to be subbed out on defense, severely hampering OSU’s ability to get stops. He was only 5 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 5 from behind the 3-point line. Worst, though, was his performance from the free-throw line. He went 12 of 19.
Those NBA types who have questions about Smart’s shot had to be scratching their heads over that one. Seven misses? From the free-throw line? In one game?
That’s sure to raise some eyebrows. What kind of player is this guy going to be in the league?
Frankly, I don’t know. At this stage in his career, his shooting is erratic and his range is limited. No two ways around that.
But here’s another unavoidable fact about Smart — whatever team picks him later this year in the NBA Draft is going to get a guy who plays with a white-hot fury.
“I definitely do,” Smart said. “I seen my brother ... he loved this game with a passion, and unfortunately, it was taken away from him early.”
Smart’s half brother, Todd Westbrook, died in 2004 after a long battle with cancer.
“He taught me to never take anything for granted because you never know when the ball will stop bouncing,” Smart said as he stood in the hallway just outside the Cowboys’ locker room Friday afternoon. “There’s a lot of people that didn’t wake up this morning. I did. I’m blessed. So when I step on the court, I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m going to go out there and play with every bit of energy I have until that clock runs out.”
That’s what he did against Gonzaga, and when OSU retreated to the sanctuary of its locker room after the game, Ford looked and saw that Smart had his head hung low.
“Did you play hard today?” Ford asked.
“Yes,” Smart answered.
“You competed and played hard for every second,” Ford concurred.
It was reason for Smart to hold his head high. Always has been.
There’s no doubt that Smart did some not-so-savory things during his career. Shove a fan. Kick a chair. Flop like a politician trying to win votes.
But Smart played his guts out while representing OSU.
“I wasn’t the tallest or the biggest guy out there,” he said, “but I tried to play like I was.”
That’s what he did Friday.
That’s what he did always.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.