BAYAMON, Puerto Rico — The Cowboys carried healthy respect for North Carolina State.
And demanded some for themselves.
“They're a good team,” said Cowboys forward Le'Bryan Nash. “We good, too.”
The basketball season is early, with the rugged Big 12 schedule looming in the distance, yet OSU's stock is rising, spiked Sunday by a 76-56 rout of No. 6 North Carolina State in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
The Cowboys (4-0) took it to the Wolfpack — the ACC favorite — from the outset, with freshman Marcus Smart sparking a surge to an early lead that stood at 10, 38-28, by halftime. Smart, on his way to being named Most Valuable Player of the tournament, scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half, including eight in a row that featured two 3-pointers during a key stretch that established a tone.
“It's huge, because everybody on our team knows Marcus Smart is going to play hard and get them involved,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “He's an extremely unselfish basketball player. They know the effort he's going to put forth every game, the leadership he brings to our team.
“When he starts making shots, I think everybody else feeds off it and they get excited — excited for our team and excited for him. He's just the ultimate competitor.”
And the ultimate producer. Along with the scoring, Smart provided seven rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots and four steals.
Nash scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed eight boards, while Phil Forte added 17 points and fired in four 3-pointers.
The Cowboys continued their tournament trend of stifling defense, holding N.C. State to 35.5 percent shooting from the floor. The Wolfpack had been shooting 56.1 percent and averaging 87.7 points before Sunday.
For the tournament, OSU held its three opponents to 30.7 percent shooting (56-of-182) from the floor and created 35 turnovers.
“We're all defensive minded now,” said Nash, who scored 58 points in the three games and was named to the All-Tournament Team, along with Smart. “We all want to play defense, especially me. I said in the preseason that I needed to get better on the defensive end. And I meant that. I know defense wins games. And defense wins championships.”
Defense certainly helped win this championship.
And with it, topped by taking down a veteran team ranked among the nation's elite, the Cowboys gained ground on going for more.
“This gives us confidence that we can contend with great teams,” Smart said. “This was kind of a statement game for ourselves, letting us know that we can compete with anybody as long as we stay focused. And we did that tonight.”
Overcoming Adversity: The Cowboys beat three teams — N.C. State, Tennessee and Akron — that Ford said he believes will make the NCAA Tournament. And they did it with an already short roster that kept taking hits, with Jéan-Paul Olukemi and Marek Soucek lost at points in Puerto Rico.
“Everybody can be proud of this team,” Ford said. “We have fought a lot of adversity, injuries and different things. But not once have we talked about it with the team. They haven't talked about it. They haven't used it as an excuse. As we keep telling them, ‘Whoever laces their shoes up will play.'
“The effort they put out these three games was exciting to watch.”
Quotable: “We came out casual, and like in a prize fight, they took it to us,” said N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried.
Up Next: The Cowboys get a week off before returning home to face Portland State on Sunday at 1 p.m. inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.