By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Three days before Christmas and eight days away from a New Year’s Eve date with No. 14 Gonzaga, the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team could have easily fallen into a trap against Tennessee Tech Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
As it turns out, the only trapping going on was done by Oklahoma State’s defense as the No. 24 Cowboys rolled to a 78-42 win over the Golden Eagles.
“I was very happy with the way we played today,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “The defense has been consistent, and that’s what we’ve been hanging our hat on. That’s what we practiced on most of the time. Our guys have embraced it to this point. I told them that we’ve done well to this point, but the warm-up is over.”
Oklahoma State freshman Phil Forte scored a career-high 22 points — including hitting 6 of 11 from beyond the arc — as the Cowboys (10-1) had five players reached double figures.
“My teammates do a great job of trying to find me when I’m open,” Forte said. “They’ve got a lot of belief in me, so it’s easy to shoot when you have teammates that really trust you.”
Forte may have led all scorers with 22-points, but he wasn’t alone in the barrage from 3. The Cowboys knocked down seven 3-pointers before halftime en route to a season-high 11 3-pointers as Oklahoma State shot 40.7 percent from beyond the arc and 49.2 percent from the field.
“Coach has been emphasizing (that) all week,” Forte said. “We’ve been a little up and down offensively. We’ve had good moments and bad moments. We just wanted to try to eliminate the up and down. We ran our offense really well and consistently throughout the game. I think that showed (Saturday). We were really unselfish with the ball to hit the open man.”
But while the offense may get most of the credit for the lopsided victory over an underwhelming opponent, it was the defense that helped Oklahoma State take a 38-19 lead at halftime. The Cowboys forced Tennessee Tech (6-6) to turn the ball over 12 times and didn’t allow an assist in the first 20 minutes.
“We’re really big on defense,” Forte said. “We know that’s something that is a strength of ours. Going into every game, we try to take away what the other team does because there will be nights when offensively, shots won’t be falling, but your defense will always be there for you.”
Along with Forte, who knocked down four of his six 3-pointers in the second half, players like freshman Kamari Murphy and junior Kirby Gardner showed that they’re capable to put up big numbers. Gardner finished with a career-high 10 points, 7 assists and 5 steals — including steal and a dunk with 3:15 left in the game, igniting what was left of the remaining crowd. Murphy had 12 points and a team-high 5 rebounds.
“I didn’t think that Kamari Murphy played very well (against Central Arkansas), but he really responded to the things that we talked to him about,” Ford said. “Kirby Gardner seems to get better and better. ... I was very pleased with how everybody played today. We were very unselfish. I loved the intensity that we played with. We really went at the other team.”
With the game against Tennessee Tech behind them, the Cowboys are able to focus their attention completely on next week’s matchup with Gonzaga.
And while their mind may have lingered to what lies ahead at spurts against the Golden Eagles, Forte said he doesn’t expect that to be a problem on New Year’s Eve.
“Obviously, we know it’s a big game,” Forte said. “They’re a top-15 team in the country. Everyone knows what they do every year. They’re one of the top programs in the nation. We have them coming into our place on New Year’s Eve, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”