LAWRENCE, Kan. — Marcus Smart and Phil Forte had finished off big games together before, clinching wins with clutch plays down the stretch.
Back in high school.
Never anything like this.
Yet there they were Saturday, two true freshmen, carrying the Cowboys over the finish line at Allen Fieldhouse, where Oklahoma State upset No. 2-ranked Kansas 85-80 in a game with more storylines and implications than you can count.
“Much respect to Kansas and the coaching staff, they have a great team and a great tradition here,” Smart said. “That's a big win to come into their place and come out with a victory. It was a battle out there, two good teams going at it.”
For an OSU squad looking to stamp itself as a legitimately good team, confirmation came on the most unlikely of stages, as the Cowboys ended KU's 33-game home winning streak and a home dominance that featured 102 wins in 103 games, and halted their own road woes — all in one glorious afternoon, stamping their NCAA Tournament résumé with a major accomplishment.
No OSU team had won inside Allen Fieldhouse since 1989.
Recent OSU teams had been 1-21 on the Big 12 road, including a winless mark this season … until Saturday.
And this win came before another energized, if disbelieving, packed crowd at The Phog, a sellout 16,300 strong.
The Cowboys improved to 15-5 overall, 5-3 in the Big 12. KU lost for the first time in league play, dropping to 19-2 and 7-1.
“What's a better way to get a road win than against a team with a long winning streak, and that's a great team,” said Smart, who so enjoyed the conquest that he produced a roundoff-backflip soon after the final buzzer sounded. “We came out with a victory here, in a hostile environment. Not many teams can come in here and do that.
“Words cannot explain this victory. But it's just a start for us. It's a big road game that we needed to win. It gives us momentum for the rest of the season.”
Smart and Forte, the former ultrasuccessful Texas prep teammates, accounted for 15 of OSU's final 16 points, stamped by Smart's two putbacks on offensive rebounds off missed foul shots, and Forte's perfect finish at the foul line, where the Cowboys had to preserve their late lead and fend off a final KU rally.
In the end, it was a total team effort, with Markel Brown jump-starting OSU's offense and its energy, with 22 of his game-high 28 points coming in the first half. Philip Jurick and Mike Cobbins limited Jeff Withey's impact inside, combining for 16 rebounds and 10 points. Le'Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy and Kirby Gardner played solid roles, too.
But for a program searching to finish games and find an identity for the better part of three years, it was going to take someone willing to shoulder the burden.
Saturday, in OSU's biggest game since James Anderson strapped the school's last NCAA Tournament team on his back, that man was Smart, with plenty of crunchtime help from his old pal.
Smart finished with 25 points, five steals, three assists and nine rebounds — more than the 7-foot Withey — with eight of the boards coming on the offensive end. Two were devastating to the Jayhawks, as Smart knifed inside to not only grab the ball, but produce two follow buckets on back-to-back possessions, extending OSU's lead from 69-68 to 73-68.
“He was terrific down the stretch,” said KU coach Bill Self. “He definitely whipped our guards. I mean, that was a physical beatdown that he put on our guys.
“And also on the free-throw block, you've got a 6-8 (guy) blocking him out, and he just soars right over them.”
Smart's 25 points and five steals matched career highs. Smart also went 9-of-11 at the foul line, with five coming in the final 1:12.
“That was a soft team playing a very aggressive, tough team today,” Self said. “And (Smart) totally wore us out. Give him credit, he was a man playing among boys.”
The Cowboys led by as many as 14 in the first half, before the Jayhawks made their expected run, even pulling into the lead in the second half.
KU led by as much as four on two occasions, including 66-62 nearing the five-minute mark.
But Forte drilled a 3-pointer and Cobbins added a follow slam to put OSU back ahead, 67-66. And after the Jayhawks went back ahead for the last time, 68-67, Nash contributed a big jumper.
Then Smart and Forte did their thing.
It wasn't an easy afternoon for Forte, who started 0-of-8 from the floor and finished 3-of-13, but he finished strong, making four free throws in the final 30 seconds, with the Jayhawks refusing to go away quietly, then producing the final bucket on a game-ending layup.
“There's so much history and tradition here,” Forte said. “To come into a place where they're No. 1 in one poll, No. 2 in another … no one really gave us a chance to win the game.
“To walk out and the place is silent, it's probably one of the best feelings I've ever had playing the game.”