Just one month ago, Oklahoma State visited Kansas and lost the kind of game that still managed to spark optimism. The Cowboys’ rallied from a 19-point deficit and fell just two points short in an 80-78 loss.
No one could have envisioned a seven-game losing streak back then.
A month ago, Marcus Smart was still a viable player of the year candidate and the Cowboys were still a formidable group. For much of the season they were a trendy pick to reach the Final Four.
They looked good in wins over Memphis, a full-strength Colorado, and Texas. And despite bumps along the way -- such as losing starting forward Michael Cobbins to injury and Stevie Clark to dismissal -- they kept the façade of holding it all together.
That’s no longer the case, as things continue to fall apart in Stillwater. Oklahoma State, which was once ranked in the top 10, might not even be a NCAA tournament team after Monday’s 70-64 overtime loss at Baylor.
The Bears, which overcame a five-game losing streak last month, have stopped their precipitous free fall, having pieced together a three-game winning streak. The win moved them ahead of OSU in the Big 12 standings and keeps their hopes of a NCAA berth alive.
The Cowboys have now lost seven consecutive games for the first time since the 1972-73 season. Three of those were without Smart, who will return to the lineup for a rematch against Texas Tech, as it was the loss in Lubbock that landed him a suspension in the first place. It was where Smart shoved a fan who was mouthing off in the stands during the final seconds of another frustrating loss.
The Cowboys were imploding before then, but in the chaos they maintain hope.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said his team had to find an identity while Smart was sidelined. What the Cowboys seemed to discover was toughness, even in defeat. They played Oklahoma to a 77-74 loss on Saturday.
They rallied in the first half against Baylor despite Le'Bryan Nash getting in early foul trouble. The Cowboys’ best frontcourt option played just six minutes of the first half while little-used reserves Christien Sager, Marek Soucek and Mason Cox all found themselves in the rotation.
For a moment, it seemed like the reserves would mask their shortcomings as the Cowboys led 33-28 at halftime and maintained the lead until about six minutes remained in regulation.
Freshman forward Leyton Hammonds, who played just six minutes the entire game, made the 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. It was just his third 3 all season.
Baylor, which was also ranked in the top 10 when league play started, was just as desperate as Oklahoma State for a win. And the Bears had a much deeper frontcourt to rely upon. They exploited an inside advantage, as forward Cory Jefferson scored 25 points and had 13 rebounds while center Isaiah Austin chipped in 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bears controlled the boards 51-36 and outscored the Cowboys 16-1 in second-chance points.
Oklahoma State tried to counter Baylor’s brawn with its backcourt.
Markel Brown, the Cowboys’ second-leading scorer, played all 45 minutes and scored a game-high 26 points. Brown seemed to cramp up on one defensive possession to the point in the second half that he was unable to lift himself from the ground. That wasn't enough to get him out of the game though.
Phil Forte played alongside Brown for all but one minute of the game, adding 20 points for the Cowboys. But no other player scored in double figures. The Cowboys needed one more player to score.
They will now regain that in Smart, who will rejoin a group of teammates who haven’t given up on the season.
The Cowboys close with Kansas and Kansas State at home before their regular-season finale at Iowa State. That’s three games that could boost their resume and earn them a bid. Judging by their recent games, don’t be surprised if they’re not done fighting yet.