STILLWATER — For much of Oklahoma State’s season opener against UC Davis Friday night, it looked and felt a lot like last season, which memory serves as not very good at all for the Cowboys.
Battered on the boards.
At least there was one familiar positive: the short guy drilling 3-pointers.
Freshman Phil Forte, making like the graduated Keiton Page, scored 11 of his 13 points in the final 10 1/2 minutes, helping OSU squeeze past UC Davis, 73-65, before an estimated crowd of 5,000 at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The Aggies, 5-26 a year ago, led at one point in the second half and threatened to stunt the optimism accompanying the Cowboys into this season.
But OSU gathered itself, with Forte firing in big shots at key moments — a 3 that sent OSU in front 53-51 after the Aggies led 51-48, and two more 3s down the stretch to keep UC Davis’ upset hopes at bay.
“That’s what I came here to do, make shots,” Forte said. “That’s kind of my role on the team. Everyone has their own role.”
Roles were sketchy Friday night, with an unorthodox opponent running an offense geared around running shooters off screens on the perimeter. That style rendered OSU’s only healthy big men — Philip Jurick and Marek Soucek — all but useless on the defensive end. Jurick played but three minutes and Soucek never checked in, leaving Le’Bryan Nash and Jéan-Paul Olukemi to play out of position at center, while freshman guard Marcus Smart spent a bulk of his playing time at the four spot.
This was a game where injured starters Brian Williams and Michael Cobbins were clearly missed.
“I’m glad we won, this game probably could have gone either way,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “But I saw this coming all week. We’re so out of sync offensively right now. It was a product of us playing lineups tonight we haven’t even practiced.
“Everything we’ve been through in the preseason, to develop that chemistry we needed to have some offensive flow. You combine that with a team that is unorthodox in everything they do, I knew it was going to be like this.”
While the Aggies were far from .500 a year ago, they do sport a revamped roster. They didn’t play great in their visit to Stillwater, yet they hung around in the second half, led briefly and didn’t fade until the final minutes.
UC Davis made 7-of-16 shots from the arc and out-rebounded the Cowboys 43-29.
“I was really pleased with our scrappy effort, especially on the boards,” said Aggies coach Jim Les. “We battled that team.
“Give Oklahoma State credit because they hit the shots when they needed to. Their backs were against the wall and they made the plays they needed to make and that is the sign of a good team.”
Markel Brown and Nash each scored 16 points to lead the Cowboys, while Olukemi added 10. Smart added eight points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
OSU built a 13-point late in the first half, before the Aggies pulled close and refused to go away, grabbing the lead with 12:25 remaining, then tying the game twice later — 59-59 at the 5:48 mark and 61-61 moments later.
But Olukemi scored on a lay-in and Forte buried his 3 from the corner. Then with OSU’s lead at 68-65 with 2:35 left, Forte drilled another 3 and the Aggies never scored again.
After just missing on two early 3s, Forte kept firing.
“I had two rattle in and out,” he said, “don’t think they could have been any closer to going in. They were like, ‘Hey, keep shooting.’”
A somewhat overlooked piece of this recruiting class, Forte’s role seems to be expanding.
“We need him on the court,” Ford said. “He can obviously make shots. He can come off screens and shoot. And he’s a reliable defender.”