LAWRENCE, Kan. — Le'Bryan Nash hurried the ball upcourt, not by design but by necessity.
The ninth-ranked Cowboys were down two points, the clock under five seconds and OSU out of timeouts, all used up trying to recover from what once was a 19-point deficit.
Nash was dribbling upstream. He's not overly comfortable handling the ball in the open court, anyway, much less through the fog of Allen Fieldhouse's ghosts and the pandemonium of its frenzied fans and OSU foul trouble and the oppression that is Kansas basketball.
Nash saw the clock approach zero, pulled up just outside the 3-point line and went up for a shot that could have lived forever in OSU lore.
But KU's Frank Mason cleanly stripped the ball from Nash's hands, and the 15th-ranked Jayhawks had an 80-78 victory that should leave the Cowboys feeling worse than ever about their Big 12 title hopes but better than ever about their NCAA Tournament chances.
“It's incredible coming into this gym, this hostile environment down 19 and coming all the way back,” said Cowboy star Marcus Smart. “It's a moral victory for us, but we should have just played like that from the tipoff.”
Moral victories are about the only kind available at Allen Fieldhouse. The Cowboys won at KU last winter, breaking their Phog Allen losing streak that dated back to 1989.
And without center Michael Cobbins, lost for the season to Achilles tendon surgery, OSU seemed in no shape to match up with these Jayhawks and be the first foe to win two straight in Lawrence since Iowa State in 2001.
Kansas is big and skilled. OSU is small and skilled. Advantage, Jayhawks.
But the Cowboys showed they can hang with a beast, even when getting outscored 34-22 in the paint.
“I would say if they play well ... when they make shots like that, they can beat anybody in the country,” said Kansas coach Bill Self.
The Cowboys didn't make shots in the first half — just eight of 26 — but sizzled after halftime. Markel Brown, the hero of the upset last February, and Phil Forte combined to make eight of 13 3-pointers in the second half.
“Proud of our guys for sustaining quite a punch we took in the first half,” said State coach Travis Ford. “Proud of how we responded in the second half. That's a really, really good Kansas basketball team.”
Think of it this way. The Cowboys came to Lawrence with a top-10 team, great talent and the best pro prospect in OSU history. And when Smart walked out to midcourt for the opening tip, he was met by two Jayhawks likely to go higher in the NBA Draft.
Kansas freshmen Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins are ranked 1-3 on most draft lists.
The Cowboys corralled Wiggins, who had just three points and two rebounds. But the 7-foot Embiid was a beast, with a near-triple double of 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
Smart matched that with a near triple of his own — 16 points despite 3-of-14 shooting, 10 rebounds and nine assists — but the Jayhawks are so deep, they can afford off nights from one of their stars.
“I don't know a team as deep as them,” Ford said. “And they played to their strengths. They've got so many good basketball players.”
Backup KU big men Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor combined for 17 points in 28 minutes and only one missed shot. OSU's backup big men, well, don't exist, not since Cobbins' injury.
The Cowboys are forced to scrap, and scrap they did, despite trailing 47-28 in the final minute of the first half, 48-30 with 18:20 left in the game and even 77-66 with two minutes to go.
But Smart and Forte each scored six points over a span of 100 seconds, and when Mason missed a foul shot with 5.4 seconds left, OSU had a chance.
Smart rebounded the miss and, while headed out of bounds, flipped the ball to Nash.
Would have been nice if the ball had been in the hands of Brown, but he had fouled out with 3:57 left (courtesy of his second technical), or even freshman Stevie Clark (whose range and consciousness know no bounds).
But the Phog's fate gave the ball to Nash, and the grand old arena doesn't allow too many opponent heroics. So the Cowboys have to be consoled with knowing they stood toe-to-toe with a matchup that is as bad as anything they can see in March.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. 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.