STILLWATER — Marcus Smart waited for the question Monday night, fully expecting it.
Still, the answer didn't come easy.
After nearly willing Oklahoma State to a victory over No. 10 Gonzaga, scoring a career-high 23 points, his two missed free throws with :08.7 left opened the door for the Bulldogs to seal a 69-68 win in a tense showdown between Top 25 teams before a near-packed house at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Smart, an 83 percent foul shooter entering the game, missed 3 of 6 free throws against Gonzaga, including the two with his team down 67-65 in the closing seconds, after he drove to the basket and drew contact from Bulldogs big man Kelly Olynyk, who fouled out on the play.
After Smart missed his two shots, Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos made two at the other end, pushing the lead to 69-65, just enough to offset Phil Forte's 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“So far, I've been shooting the ball from the free-throw line very well,” Smart said. “In my mind, I went up there, I was confident. But sometimes it just doesn't go the way you want it. That's kind of what happened tonight.
“You know…,” Smart said, his voice tailing off, “I don't know what to say.”
Until those misses, it appeared Smart was set to hoist the No. 22 Cowboys to a significant victory over a Gonzaga squad that had already beaten four Big 12 teams, scoring 14 of his points in the second half. Time and again, he fired in critical shots in a variety of ways — a 3-pointer to cut a six-point deficit in half; a driving, spinning layup, a jumper in the lane and finally a follow underneath — all in the final 9 1/2 minutes.
“Great player,” said Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos, who scored a team-high 23 points. “Tough guy. Defends the ball really well. Can score in multiple ways.
“Just a competitor. He'll have a great career. It was fun to go up against him.”
The Cowboys fell to 10-2, while Gonzaga improved to 13-1.
With the much-anticipated matchup living up to advance billing and Gallagher-Iba rocking like glory days of the past, OSU rallied from an early 11-point deficit, kept answering Bulldogs spurts and even led 63-60 inside the 3-minute mark.
Ultimately, however, what Smart was for the Cowboys, Olynyk was even more for the Bulldogs in the second half.
A 7-foot junior, Olynyk turned around a near invisible first half that saw him held scoreless and without a rebound due to foul problems that limited him to six minutes. In the second half, he struck for 21 points and nine rebounds, seven on the offensive end that contributed to Gonzaga's 18-8 edge in second-chance points.
Overall, the Bulldogs out-rebounded OSU 37-21.
“We got destroyed on the glass,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “That is the bottom line. We played a good half-court defense. We played good offense in the second half. We did everything else, we just did not rebound the basketball.
“When it's a one-point game at halftime and you shoot 56 percent (in the second half), you should win.”
And the Cowboys nearly did, before momentum swung Gonzaga's way late.
Le'Bryan Nash committed a costly turnover with his team ahead 63-60, followed by two Olynyk buckets inside, one on a tip and then on a follow of his own miss to send Gonzaga back in front 64-63.
Smart's follow in the lane put OSU in front 65-64, but the Bulldogs' Gary Bell Jr. drilled a 3-pointer from the wing to regain the lead, 67-65, the ninth lead change in a game that also featured eight ties.
Out of a timeout, the Cowboys put the ball in the hands of Smart, who eventually drove on Olynyk, drawing the foul and the two free throws, which both clanked off the rim.
“Hey, that did not cost us the game by any stretch of the imagination,” Ford said. “He made a lot of plays just to get us to that point. That's one play out of a game. And when you're a player of his caliber, you're an All-American, you're going to find yourself in that position. And sometimes it's going to go your way, and sometimes it's not. He's going to be in that situation again.
“He does so many things for our basketball team, that's just a minor blip on the radar. I'm not worried about that whatsoever. He doesn't need to worry about it.
“We'll get 'em next time.”