SAN DIEGO — Oklahoma State’s storyline in San Diego turned all too familiar Friday.
Another slow start.
More missed free throws.
Another early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga 85, OSU 77.
The Cowboys trailed 9-0 almost immediately and 17-6 five minutes into the game, forced into rally mode from the outset. And they did rally, repeatedly, only to be turned back time and again by the Bulldogs — or to turn themselves back, missing 15 free throws, including 12 in the second half at Viejas Arena.
“We’re usually one of the better free-throw shooting teams out there,” said OSU sophomore guard Phil Forte. “It was just one of those games. We couldn’t make our free throws, unfortunately. When you get in the NCAA Tournament, you have to make your free throws.
“And all those little things add up and we just kept shooting ourselves in the foot. And you can’t do that against a good team.”
And big things — major points of emphasis that would have made up a checklist of OSU “Dos and Don’ts.”
Like avoiding foul trouble in their mismatched battle inside, which OSU didn’t. Four Cowboys went to halftime with two fouls, severely altering the offensive game plan to take the ball aggressively to the hole, and limiting how they could guard on the other end, allowing Zags 7-footer Przemek Karnowski to control the game for a major stretch. Overall, three Cowboys fouled out, three more finished with four fouls and Le’Bryan Nash was limited to 17 minutes.
Like missing so many unguarded shots — going 22 of 37 from the line, 59.5 percent — when this was a team built to get to the rim and to the line with its array of slashers.
Like lagging behind early, which the Cowboys did, failing to fire from the gate.
“You’ve got to give Gonzaga credit, they came out with a great game plan to attack early. And they did,” said Nash, who finished with six points and one rebound. “They got us into foul trouble, they knew were short on bigs. And they attacked us.
“It’s sad that I couldn’t play that much, because of the foul trouble. I can’t believe you can put a game in the ref’s hands like that. But it is what it is.”
The Cowboys never led and were only tied at 0-0.
Still, like they’d done so many times at tough junctures of this season, they kept fighting back.
They just couldn’t get all the way back, without Kevin Pangos or Gary Bell Jr. or Drew Barnham providing Gonzaga with a halting 3-pointer.
It was Bell, who opened the game with two 3s to spark the 9-0 start, who fired in from long range to answer a 9-2 Cowboys run that had them within three at 53-50 … briefly. And the lead expanded out again from there.
“Every time we came back and made a strong run, they kept throwing haymakers at us,” said OSU forward Kamari Murphy. “Basically, we were playing catch-up the whole game.
“Like I said before the game, we had to bring it to them before they bring it to us, or it’s going to be a tough game. And that’s what they did. We were playing from behind the whole game.”
Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, who came back for some unfinished business after last season’s disappointing ending, scored 23 and 20 points in their final game at OSU. Still, it wasn’t enough.
The Cowboys went one-and-done in the tournament for the second straight season and a third consecutive trip overall.
Once ranked as high as No. 5, the Cowboys faded fast due to injury and suspensions and inconsistent play.
And for many of the Cowboys, this game was a microcosm of an entire disappointing season that ends at 21-13.
“I felt like the whole year, nothing went our way,” Smart said in comparing the game to the season. “Everything was against us. And we tried to fight, and every time we got closer and closer, something went wrong for us. And it slipped away from us.”