By Steve Wieberg
Freshman Phil Forte, who hasn't missed a free throw in more than a month, coolly hit two with 2.9 seconds left to give third-seeded Oklahoma State a wild, 74-72 win over Baylor. Baylor scrambled all the way back from an 18-point halftime deficit, but saw its NCAA tournament prospects dim – if not die – with its 14th loss of the season.
OSU sophomore Le'Bryan Nash scored just one point in the first half, but accounted for every one of the Cowboys' six field goals in the second. He finished with 14 points. Teammate Marcus Smart hit 11 of 14 free throws in the final 17½ minutes, and finished with 21 points. Oklahoma State needed it all as Baylor's Pierre Jackson erupted for 24 of his game-high 31 points in the second half.
Baylor shot just 25% in the first half, including an 0-for-13 shutout behind the three-point line, then 50% in the second. Oklahoma State's reversal was opposite and nearly fatal, slumping from 55% to 6-for-19 in the second half.
The image of Jackson lying on the Sprint Center floor, anguishing over a three-point attempt that missed at the final buzzer, spoke to the emotions of the game. And to the stakes.
Complete the comeback, pull out the improbable win, and Baylor would have given its NCAA case some necessary burnish – adding to good the Bears did with their regular-season-ending victory over conference co-champion Kansas.
"I definitely thought it went in," Jackson said of the running shot. Coach (Scott Drew) did a good job calling the play. We executed well, and we were able to get a shot up. … Unfortunately, it didn't fall.
"It's just the kind of moment you live for, being able to take that last shot and helping your team out. And I wasn't able to knock it down. I feel like I let them down a little bit but, at the same time, I'm proud of our team for how we fought back."
The sixth-seeded Bears (18-14) staggered through a horrendous first half, falling behind by as many as 20 points. Oklahoma State gave them life in the second. A layup by Rico Gathers cut the lead to single digits, 45-36, with a little less than 14 minutes left. Four consecutive free throws by Cory Jefferson and Jackson made it a four-point game, 57-53, with 4:06 remaining. Jackson's three-pointer from the top of the key brought Baylor within one, 68-67, with 38.5 seconds to play.
Finally, with 19.1 seconds left, junior guard Gary Franklin connected on a trey from the corner, was fouled and hit the free throw to tie it 72-72.
"We lost a little bit of focus," Smart said of the Cowboys' fade. "We came out in the second half, we're up 18, and we didn't really match their intensity like we should have in the first 10 minutes. They came out ready and more energized."
"I think we just played not to lose rather than playing to win," OSU coach Travis Ford said.
Still, the Cowboys (24-7) had the ball and 19 seconds to finally finish Baylor off. Forte drove the lane and put up a shot that the Bears' Jefferson reached for and batted away – cleanly it appeared from replays. But a whistle blew, a foul was called and Forte hit both shots. It finished a 6-for-6 night at the line for him, and extended his streak of successful free throws to 27. His last miss: Feb. 6.
Asked later about the foul call, Baylor's Drew said, "I have an obvious opinion, a real easy opinion. But I'll pose the question back to you: If, for three weeks, you've been struggling on the bubble trying to make this (NCAA) tournament and everybody says (if) you win you're definitely in, you lose (and) you don't, would you want the game to come down to that play?
"We shouldn't have gotten down, but Oklahoma State's a top 15 team in the nation. They're a good team, and they caused us to get down."
He made a pitch to the NCAA selection committee, gathered in Indianapolis to put together a 68-team bracket that will be unveiled Sunday evening.
"Who recently has beaten Kentucky in Rupp (Arena) and beaten Kansas?" Drew said, citing the Bear's two highest-profile victories. "I think we can beat anybody in the country. That means we can play in the Final Four. At the same time, I know everyone in the country has games, like: Why didn't you win? But I think we can compete with anybody in the country.
"If the committee sees us (as) worthy, we would definitely be excited. That's an understatement."
The Cowboys meet second-seeded Kansas State in Friday's 9 p.m. CT semifinal.