By Harry Endicott
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
On a Friday afternoon in the middle of February, Oklahoma State's basketball practice is just wrapping up in the practice gym of historic Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The 22nd-ranked team in the nation is coming off of its fourth straight win over the Baylor Bears; an overtime victory that proved to be one of the most exciting games of the 2012-13 season.
A group of players file out of the practice gym, followed by Cowboy basketball coach Travis Ford and a couple of assistant coaches heading to get ready for the flight to Austin, Texas that leaves in a few hours.
A group of team trainers, graduate assistants and one or two players stand under the basket closest to the exit.
On the far side of the court, however, is Phil Forte, the freshman from Flower Mound, Texas, still putting up shot after shot.
"Just thirty more minutes," Forte says.
It's the extra time spent in the gym that has made Forte into the player he is today: the sharpshooter that can hit from almost anywhere on the court.
Forte has played the game of basketball since the second grade, but he also played several other sports growing up, including football, track and field, soccer and baseball.
It was a year after he started playing basketball that Forte met Marcus Smart. As third graders at the time, Forte and Smart had no clue about the future the two would have together.
Forte and Smart teamed up to play for Marcus High School in Flower Mound. The duo led the Marauders to two Texas 5A state championships. Forte racked up several honors during his high school career, being named first-team All-State for Class 5A in 2012 by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches and Most Valuable Player of the 2012 Texas Class 5A State Tournament. Forte was also a two-time first-team All-Region I selection in Class 5A in 2011 and 2012.
Forte received interest from several schools around the nation, including Kansas State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma, but chose to commit to and sign with Oklahoma State along with Smart.
At Oklahoma State, even as a freshman, Forte has had the opportunity to make an immediate impact on the Cowboys' squad.
"I feel so honored to have the opportunity as a freshman to play and take the court with these great players that we have on our team," Forte says. "I just go out there and do whatever I need to do to help our team get the win, whether that's shooting or diving on the floor to get loose balls."
An example of Forte's impact on the team as a freshman isn't hard to find if you look at the box scores, but a couple of big moments stand out.
Forte grew up a fan of the Jayhawks because his father Phil, Sr., played as a lineman for the Kansas football team.
"I was a huge Kansas fan growing up," Forte said. "The walls of my room were painted KU colors with the Jayhawk when I was little."
When Forte and the Cowboys traveled to Lawrence, Kan., to face off with the second-ranked Jayhawks earlier this month, not many gave them much of a chance to get out of Allen Fieldhouse with a win. However, Oklahoma State pulled off the stunning upset, defeating Kansas, 85-80.
Although Forte didn't have his best shooting night in Lawrence, he hit four huge late free throws that helped the Cowboys close out Kansas, along with a fast break layup at the buzzer to end the game and give Oklahoma State their first win at Phog Allen since 1989.
"Going into an environment like that and seeing the reaction from all of their fans was a great feeling," Forte says. "I went to a lot of games there when I was little. I would have never thought I would go in there someday and take down the second-ranked team in the nation."
In the following game, the Cowboys hosted Baylor at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. Oklahoma State gave up a double-digit lead late in the second half, and the game was extended into overtime. Phil Forte couldn't get his shot to fall, going 1-6 from the field in regulation.
"I just told him to keep shooting, and the shots would fall," Cowboy sophomore Michael Cobbins said. "You can't get down on yourself because once you get down on yourself, you lose confidence in your shot. He's in the gym way too much to just get down on himself. So I told him to keep shooting it because it was going to fall."
Finally, Forte's shot did fall, and at a critical moment in the game.
That moment was when Phil Forte's greatest moment of his freshman year occurred. The Cowboys trailed the Bears 67-64 with under a minute-and-a-half remaining in overtime. Forte launched a three from behind a screen set by Marcus Smart.
He nailed it.
Gallagher-Iba Arena exploded with noise, and Oklahoma State was able to pull out the win after Markel Brown scored the game-winning layup at the buzzer.
"The shot clock was winding down," Forte said. "My role on the team is to shoot it, so if I have any space, I have to take advantage of that."
Even as a freshman, Phil Forte has had a major impact on the recent success of the Oklahoma State basketball team, especially in the critical moments of big games.
Not only is Oklahoma State in as good of a position as just about anyone in the nation to make a run through the NCAA Tournament later this season, but with a young player like Forte, the future of the Cowboy basketball program looks bright.