STILLWATER — Marcus Smart flexed. Le’Bryan Nash fist pumped. Markel Brown crowd surfed.
Quite a scene in Stillwater.
On a night when newly crowned conference champion Kansas came to town and Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and darn near half of their Thunder teammates sat courtside, it was Oklahoma State that put on the show. The Cowboys rallied and surged and not only kept alive their NCAA Tournament hopes alive but also put future foes on notice.
OSU 72, KU 65.
This team will have to be reckoned with.
After all the drama of this season, the injury to Michael Cobbins, the dismissal of Stevie Clark, the suspension of Smart, the Cowboys find themselves in a spot where many thought they would be. They are coming together at the end of the regular season. They are charging into March.
They didn’t get here the way everyone thought they would, but still, here they are.
The NCAA Tournament awaits.
Bracketologists might say these Cowboys are still a bubble team, maybe even among the first few teams out, but after beating the Jayhawks, at least one college basketball insider doesn’t need any more convincing of the Cowboys’ tournament worthiness.
“Yeah,” Kansas coach Bill Self said when asked if OSU is a tournament team. “These guys are really talented. They can get really hot and make a serious run, there’s no question.”
Work remains, of course. OSU plays Kansas State at home Monday and Iowa State on the road Saturday. Win both, and the Cowboys will be .500 in conference play, will have a great non-conference resume to go along with that and will be in the NCAA Tournament. Win one of the next two, and they probably need to win a game or two at the Big 12 Tournament just to make sure of their NCAA fate.
But this win against the Jayhawks is a big blue feather in the Cowboys’ cap. The way Kansas has been playing of late, it had an outside shot at a No. 1 seed.
This team showed that it could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. A lot depends on matchups. If the Cowboys find themselves against a team with a massive frontline, that could be a problem, but the number of college teams with a bunch of bigs is small. Kansas is one of the few.
And look what OSU did to it.
Saturday night showed that the Cowboys can beat teams with talent bigs — Jayhawk freshman Joel Embiid is a handful; the Cowboys held him to 13 points and 13 rebounds — but clearly, it would be a stroke of luck for OSU if it could draw a couple of teams with less-formidable front lines. After all, no one has any more talent in the backcourt than OSU.
Smart. Brown. Nash. Wow. Yes, I know Nash is playing in the paint these days, but he’s a swingman who’s been forced inside out of necessity.
Those guys are a tough threesome.
Kansas found that out. When the Jayhawks looked like they might run away from the Cowboys, taking a 52-42 lead with a little over 10 minutes left, Smart, Brown and Nash wouldn’t allow it. Nash got to the basket and converted an and-one. Smart found Brown for an ally-oop dunk from halfcourt that will surely be played a few times on sports highlights show. Brown found Nash on a nifty drive and dish. Smart scored on a drive off the dribble.
On and on it went.
Those three had a hand in every point that the Cowboys scored over the last 10 minutes of the game. They scored 30 points in that span — 30! – and Smart, Brown or Nash scored or assisted on each and every one of those points.
“That’s just our offense,” Nash said. “Our offense goes through us three.”
Understood, but in big games in crunch time, big-time players impose their will on opponents. That’s what OSU’s three-headed monster did.
And in the final moments of the upset, Smart flexed his biceps and Nash pumped his fists. Then OSU fans, so loud that they had Gallagher-Iba Arena shaking Saturday night, poured onto the court and filled every available inch of the hardwood. Brown eventually popped above the crowd and surfed on shoulders for a while.
He crowd surfed his sophomore season when OSU fans stormed the court after a win over Missouri.
“I think this time was better,” Brown said. “It’s my second-to-last home game. Packed house. Knocked off No. 5 Kansas.”
It was a great scene, but for the Cowboys, it was an even greater statement.