KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Le'Bryan Nash's teammates call him Mr. Clutch. They do that because he tells them to.
“He's always telling us, he's got the fourth quarter,” said OSU's Markel Brown.
Nash lived up to his name Thursday night in a wild Big 12 basketball quarterfinal. The Cowboys survived Baylor 74-72 at the Sprint Center, but only after Pierre Jackson made his own clutch candidacy. Jackson scored 24 second-half points, leading the Bears back from an 18-point deficit, and in the final 2.9 seconds, Jackson took a Baylor inbounds pass, sped into the front court and double-pumped a 3-point shot that bounced off the rim.
“Holy crap,” OSU star Marcus Smart said to himself as that shot launched.
“My heart dropped,” Nash said.
“I wasn't overly excited about seeing him run down the court wide open,” said State coach Travis Ford, exaggerating Jackson's freedom just a tad.
Indeed it was quite the scare for the Cowboys, who had a 20-point lead in the final minute of the first half and almost went back to Stillwater with what would have been a scarring defeat, heading into the NCAA Tournament next week.
But OSU won thanks in large part to Nash, the only Cowboy to make a second-half basket. That's right. Twenty of OSU's 32 second-half points after intermission came on foul shots. The rest, Nash's six field goals. Four of those came in the final four minutes, after Baylor drew within 57-53.
“I love playing in the clutch,” Nash said. “I've played in the clutch my whole life. I tell my teammates all the time, give me the ball in clutch moments. They call me Mr. Fourth Quarter.”
Nash hasn't always lived up to his ample hype, but give him credit. He's playing the best basketball of his OSU career in recent weeks, just when the Cowboys need it the most. After an 0-for-4 first half, Nash became OSU's best offensive threat in the second half.
“The second half, I just told my teammates, ‘If you give me the ball, I'm just coming through clutch,'” Nash said. “If we got a problem, just keep going to me. I tell these guys every time that I like playing in the clutch, and it worked out for me.”
Nash scored on a variety of power moves against Baylor, which used four guards down the stretch and paid the price when Nash muscled a variety of smaller defenders.
“He didn't play too well in the first half,” Ford said. “We weren't getting him in position where he likes to get the ball a lot. In the second half, he got the ball in some areas with some mismatches. And I know when LB's rolling, and you get a feel. We ran a lot of stuff for him to get the ball.”
As Baylor did for Jackson. Nash missed all four of his first-half shots. Jackson missed nine of his 11 first-half shots. But basketball is a two-half game.
Jackson, feeling a variety of emotions, warmed up down the stretch. He was overlooked for all-Big 12 first team, despite leading the league in scoring and assists. And Jackson also felt the reality that his collegiate career is about to end, possibly without an NCAA Tournament bid on Sunday.
And Jackson played like a desperate, offended soul. Until Jackson's desperation miss at the end, Baylor had scored on 14 straight possessions. Jackson provided the points on eight of those. That's 16 points in the final 6:30; Jackson finished with 31.
Kansas knows what it's like to feel Jackson's wrath. He had 28 points and 10 assists on 11-of-13 shooting last Saturday in Baylor's 81-58 rout of the Jayhawks.
“I haven't seen a better team in the country than the way they played Kansas,” Ford said. “They're a heck of a team.”
But a team that's not going to the NCAA Tournament. OSU is, with a hot team and a hot player. Nash has averaged 18.3 points the last eight games. He's not the superstar some hoped for when Ford signed Nash out of Dallas, but he's become indispensable for the Cowboys.
This is how teams go deep into March Madness. Great players, like Marcus Smart, is a good place to start. But good players, like Le'Bryan Nash, must raise their games. And miracle shots by determined opponents, like Pierre Jackson, have to bounce off the rim.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.