By Jason Elmquist
KANSAS CITY —
With the Baylor Bears playing for their NCAA tournament lives, a 20-point first half lead for Oklahoma State was anything but safe Thursday in the Big 12 Conference Championship in Kansas City, Mo.
The Cowboys needed a pair of free throws — a Baylor buzzer-beater to come up short — to escape with a 74-72 victory in the quarterfinal game at the Sprint Center.
Second half was more about Baylor than it was about us. What happened to our offense is what happened to our defense," said OSU coach Travis Ford, whose 14th-ranked Cowboy squad will face No. 11 Kansas State in a semifinal game at 9 p.m. Friday. "We were scoring so many points off our defense in the first half, we couldn't get any stops in the second half to get out on the break and create some things."
OSU rolled in the first half, but it was the complete opposite in the final 20 minutes with the Cowboys only making six field goals — all of them coming from Le'Bryan Nash, who finished with 14 points.
"I think I had a real bad first half, and I was worried about my ankle because I twisted it," Nash said. "The second half I just told my teammates, if you give me the ball, I'm just coming through clutch. I tell these guys every time that I like playing in the clutch, and it worked out for me today."
The Cowboys went through several shooting droughts and kept the Bears from moving ahead thanks to getting to the free throw line. OSU went 20 for 26 from the charity stripe in the second half — 25 of 33 for the game — including two from freshman guard Phil Forte in the final two seconds to secure the win.
With OSU leading by four points with 19 seconds remaining, Baylor guard Gary Franklin knocked down a 3-pointer and was fouled by Forte to make it a four-point play, tying the game at 72.
On the final possession, the Cowboys looked to get freshman point guard Marcus Smart — who received the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year trophy prior to the contest — a lane to drive. But the Bears clamped down on Smart, who had already made several buzzer-beaters this season, and Forte was able to drive into the lane where he was fouled with 2.9 seconds remaining.
"I think I got fouled," Forte said. "But I'm sure they are thinking it wasn't a foul, like I didn't think I fouled that 3 at the end. That's just kind of how the game goes."
Forte, a 90-percent free throw shooter in his rookie campaign at the college level, drained both attempts — though Ford had considered having the Flower Mound, Texas, native miss the second when he called a timeout between shots.
"He actually said he wanted me to miss it at first, and I was like 'What? Why do you want me to miss?'" Forte said. "But he decided to have me go ahead and make it. Missing it probably would have been the right thing, though, because (Pierre) Jackson got a good look."
The Cowboys couldn't celebrate quite yet.
Baylor's senior point guard Jackson was able to get past the Pokes with the ball near midcourt and got a final shot off from just beyond the 3-point arc. Fortunately for the third-seeded Cowboys, the shot hit the front of the iron and bounced away harmlessly.
I wasn't overly excited about seeing him run down the court wide open. But I'll tell you, we made a lot of defensive mistakes," Ford said. "We know we made defensive mistakes because of our game plan. A lot. We made another one there at the end that I was supposed to switch and didn't switch. We made a lot of mistakes defensively in the second half."
Jackson, who led the league in scoring with nearly 20 points a game, finished with a game-high 31 points. His counterpart, Smart, finished with a team-high 21 points for OSU — including a team-best 11 for 14 from the free throw line.
Oklahoma State, which got the rubber match win over Baylor after a series split in the regular season, will get a chance to claim another series against Kansas State — which OSU beat in the regular season finale after losing to the Wildcats in the conference opener in January.
The winner will earn a trip to the Big 12 championship game, which will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday, against the winner of the other semifinal game between top seed Kansas and fifth-seeded Iowa State.