STILLWATER — The Gonzaga game delivered for Oklahoma State in many ways.
Returned the rowdy. Revealed reason to believe Marcus Smart is not only the Big 12's best freshman, but perhaps the Big 12's best player, as one prominent league coach has suggested to confidantes.
Revealed, too, more individual reasons for optimism, with Markel Brown, Philip Jurick and Phil Forte all playing big in an early season clash that offered a postseason feel.
Only one thing, albeit a big thing, was missing: a victory.
The No. 10-ranked Bulldogs prevailed, 69-68, with the clutch production late that they've shown repeatedly in a 13-1 start that features five wins over Big 12 squads.
“You saw a Gonzaga team that's a veteran team,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “They've been in this position before. They made veteran plays. We made some youthful plays at times.”
For OSU, all eyes now shift to the bounce-back.
Gonzaga always offered a special nonconference appeal as a premium home date and a chance at seizing major momentum, but came with the potential consequence of a disappointment, too, which the Cowboys now face entering Big 12 play, which opens with a difficult road game Saturday at Kansas State.
“This Gonzaga team, this was a big test for us going into the Big 12,” Brown said. “We're going to use this game and the next couple days to prepare for teams like Kansas State, who's in the Top 25. It's going to be another tough matchup on the road. We've just to go out there and fight and get the win.”
The Cowboys led 63-60 inside the 2 1/2-minute mark, before a costly turnover and two missed free throws weighed heavily into Gonzaga's rally.
Still, Smart gave a starring performance, scoring a career-high 23 points and adding six assists and four rebounds. Brown added 16 points, three blocked shots and two assists. Forte fired in five 3-pointers, most at critical junctures. And Jurick grabbed seven rebounds and provided tough defense inside.
“We did a lot of good things,” Ford said. “We made some good defensive plays. Some things we worked on over the break, some pressing, some trapping things paid off for us a little bit. We did everything well but rebound.”
With the nonconference schedule complete and the Cowboys at 10-2, Ford assessed his team's overall early play.
“It went well,” Ford said. “We won some good games. We lost a couple games. We haven't hurt ourselves. The real season starts now.
“We need to bounce back. But if you would have told me we'd be 10-2 through nonconference play at the start of the year, I'd have taken it.”
FORD STRESSES ‘PHYSICALITY'
The Cowboys did a solid job containing Gonzaga's big men and controlling the paint in the first half. The final 20 minutes was a different story.
The Bulldogs finished with a 37-21 bulge on the boards, outrebounding OSU 20-9 in the second half. Kelly Olynyk, the Zags' 7-foot center, scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds – after intermission. And seven of Olynyk's boards came on the offensive end, where he scored key baskets on a tip and a follow shot in the final 2:20.
“We had no physicality around the rim,” Ford said. “Philip Jurick and Marcus Smart are physical around the rim. Other than that, we had nobody who's physically battling. And we're going to correct that quick.”
The Cowboys were beaten badly on the boards (41-31) in their only other loss at Virginia Tech.
“Our defense was good enough to win,” Ford said. “But when you're going to give a team two cracks at it, three, of that caliber, it's going to be difficult.”
SMART HAS FAN IN ZAGS COACH
Veteran Gonzaga coach Mark Few was on the staff of Team USA's gold medal team in the FIBA Americas U18 Championships in Brazil. With that team, he became quite familiar with the Cowboys' Smart.
So he watched with some admiration as the OSU freshman turned in a stellar performance Monday night.
“He's one of the all-time greats. I love that guy,” Few said. “He's a warrior. He's a winner. He's the umpteenth level. I'll go into battle with that guy any time.
“I was happy for him, he played great. The best thing about Marcus is as good as he is on the floor, he's even better and a legitimate guy off the floor. You can't help but root for great things to happen for him in his career. It's a no-brainer, it's going to happen.”
WILLIAMS, SOUCEK STILL MENDING
The Cowboys continue to wait for hopeful reinforcements in Brian Williams and Marek Soucek. Williams (wrist surgery) hasn't yet been cleared to return to full-scale workouts, while Soucek (knee) is practicing and went through pregame warm-ups Monday night, but did not play.
“Brian would help us, no question, no matter who we play,” Ford said. “He goes back to the doctor Wednesday. And hopefully we'll have a little better timetable, maybe. I don't know, I've jumped the gun too many times on him already.
Soucek: “He's getting closer. He practiced the last three days, probably 30 to 40 percent of the practice. How far along is he? He's probably 50 percent, as far as health. He's not ready yet.”