Oklahoma State fell just one-point shy of a statement victory on New Year's Eve in Stillwater but there is plenty for this team to look forward to heading into 2013.
The 22nd-ranked Cowboys lost 69-68 to No. 10 Gonzaga at Gallagher-Iba Arena after all-everything freshman Marcus Smart missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 8.7 seconds remaining.
Aside from the game-deciding misses from the stripe, Smart was stellar for the Pokes on Monday. The dynamic freshman point guard scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting with six assists and four rebounds. He also came up big time and time again as the Pokes rallied back from multiple deficits throughout the game.
Smart earned high praise from Gonzaga coach Mark Few after the game.
"He's one of the all-time greats. I love that guy," Few said. "He's a warrior. He's a winner to the umpteenth level. I'd go into battle with that guy anytime."
And OSU coach Travis Ford did anything but pin the loss on his star freshman in the postgame press conference.
"When you're a great player like Marcus Smart, you're going to be put in those situations. Sometimes it's going to go your way, sometimes it's not," he said. "There were so many other plays in that game. We turned the ball over at crucial times late in the game, and it really affected us. Marcus, overall, played a great game. We wouldn't have been in the position we were in if it weren't for a lot of things he did. He'll shake that off because he'll be in that position again at some point."
Overall, Smart and the Cowboys gave the Bulldogs their toughest game of the season, save for their lone loss against Illinois. With the victory, Gonzaga moved to 13-1 on the season and 5-0 against Big 12 competition. The Zags also beat West Virginia 84-50, Oklahoma 72-47, Kansas State 68-52 and Baylor 94-87.
Unlike the rest of their Big 12 brethren, the Cowboys (10-2) had a chance to force overtime with fewer than 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
It was a hard-fought game for the Pokes, who charged back from an early 19-8 deficit. OSU was clearly a little too amped for this one at the tip with a young roster in front of a sold-out, rowdy Gallagher-Iba.
But Smart and Markel Brown helped spark a 13-2 run in the first half to close the gap, eventually taking a 31-29 lead with under a minute remaining in the opening half. Gonzaga converted three late free throws to take a 32-31 lead at the break.
Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos proved to be a problem for the Cowboys in the first half, scoring 18 points, but OSU locked down on the 6-foot-2 guard in the second, limiting him to just five points. However, Pangos hit two free throws with four seconds left to secure the victory for Gonzaga.
While OSU, one of the nation's stingiest defensive teams, adjusted to stop Pangos, it was 7-foot Kelly Olynyk who stepped up for the Zags. Olynyk scored all 21 of his points in the second half, converting on several second-chance opportunities that proved devastating down the stretch for the Cowboys.
OSU was outrebounded 37-21 and Gonzaga outscored the Pokes 18-8 in second-chance points.
"They just destroyed us on the glass. That's the bottom line," Ford said. "We just let one guy (Olynyk) control the game in the second half, and in a close game like this, the team that is getting the easy baskets is probably going to win, and they were getting easy baskets. We had to work so hard for ours. It goes back to rebounding. We just couldn't get any physicality around the rim."
Brown scored 16 points for OSU and also chipped in a game-high three blocks. Freshman guard Phil Forte was the only other Cowboy scorer in double figures with 15 points, including five 3-pointers.
Le'Bryan Nash scored nine points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Pangos and Olynyk were the only Gonzaga players to reach double figures.
Gonzaga shot 48 percent from the floor, while the Cowboys shot 47.3 percent but struggled to create good looks inside, getting outscored 30-20 in the paint. OSU forced Gonzaga into 18 turnovers while committing just eight of their own.
Naturally, a win would have been preferable for the Cowboys but they fared well against an elite opponent heading into conference play, where OSU has should be a force to be reckoned with and should be battle-tested after slugging through a tough nonconference slate.
The Cowboys return to the court on Saturday when they travel to Manhattan, Kan., to take on the No. 25 Kansas State Wildcats at 12:30 p.m.