SAN DIEGO — Brian Williams reflected on Oklahoma State’s losses, rattling off the variety of ways the Cowboys have gone down.
“A lot of overtimes. A lot of buzzer-beaters,” the OSU junior guard said. “A lot of close games.”
Painfully close games.
The Cowboys are 4-10 in contests decided by six points or less or in overtime, with the 10 such losses matching the school record set in 1967-68.
Now they enter the NCAA Tournament, where games are expected to be tight. And in an 8-9 seed matchup with Gonzaga, OSU finds itself in the very definition of a toss-up.
So, game hanging in the balance, time ticking down, March Madness in the air … how do the Cowboys respond?
They’re actually counting on all those prior moments, all the disappointments, to shape the outcome in a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger sort of way.
“I think it’s the team that has the most mental toughness,” said OSU forward Kamari Murphy. “And I think we have that, having gone through what we’ve been through this year, from losing players to suspending players to injuries to everything. I think we’ve bonded and gotten stronger as a team.
“In those tough situations, it’ll go back to, ‘We’re tougher than that. We’ve been through tougher times.’ And that’ll give us the push forward. I think we have the team chemistry and the team bond to push us through.”
Up to now, this Cowboys season has been marked more by late-game fades than feel-good moments.
And the hope — and recent preparation — has been built on making them learning moments.
“You hopefully learn from every one of them,” said OSU coach Travis Ford. “We have been in some close games and it gives you some things to reflect on. Over the last three or four days, when we do situations in practice, we’ve gone over a lot of those situations. Guys understand some things that need to get done late in games now.”
All understanding aside, there’s still the matter of undoing the pattern of flat finishes.
For good or bad, there’s no one thing that has haunted the Cowboys. It’s been a play here or there. A bounce here or there.
Even some bad luck.
On one hand, 10 of OSU’s 12 losses could have easily swung the other way. In two overtime setbacks against Iowa State, the Cowboys had shots, either jumpers or free throws, to win … and missed. In a 77-74 loss to Oklahoma, OSU missed 10 foul shots. In their 77-70 overtime loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, the Cowboys committed three turnovers in the extra period, after surrendering but two in regulation. At Texas Tech, the offensively challenged Red Raiders scored on their final six possessions, throwing in several difficult shots.
“Those are the types of games that make teams and individuals,” said Marcus Smart. “And it tests what you have as a team. It tests your mental toughness, your physical toughness and your toughness in general.
“You learn a couple of things from those. You learn how to win. You learn what you should have done when you lose.”
On the other hand, the Cowboys couldn’t swing those losses their way, including all four overtime games.
“For this team, most of the losses we had in close games, it’s because we did it to ourselves,” Smart said. “We had the game there, but we just couldn’t get a defensive rebound. We couldn’t get a stop. We fouled when we were supposed to foul. Or we didn’t foul when we were supposed to foul. It’s just all on us in 90 percent of the games we lost.
“Everything we did is fixable with those losses. And if you can learn from those things … it’s not easy to say a loss is a good loss, but if you can learn from what you did wrong, it’s a good loss.”
Gonzaga enters Friday’s game at 6-3 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, although the Zags’ schedule offers an intriguing narrative of its own. There are common foes, with Gonzaga beating West Virginia 80-76 and losing to Memphis 60-54. There were also struggles with the likes of Santa Clara, San Diego, Portland and Dayton, some wins and some losses.
The last time the Cowboys won one of these games: Jan. 25, against West Virginia.
Now, they’ve closed games out since then, particularly in their strong finishing stretch that got them surging back into the NCAA field. They beat Kansas 72-65, just missing the six-point category, yet making all the right plays down the stretch. They pulled away from Kansas State in a 77-61 victory. And they pasted lesser teams in TCU and Texas Tech, twice.
So it’s not like they’ve forgotten how to win.
It’s just a question of how they’ll respond in a tight spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have great players. We have so many ways we can score,” said Cowboys guard Phil Forte. “We just have to use that to our advantage. The more unselfish we play, the better we play as a team. And in the wins we’ve gotten lately, I think that’s what we’ve done.
“I just think we have to keep playing like that, in the beginning of the game and late in the game.”