Marcus Smart enjoys his return

STILLWATER, Okla. -- The last time Marcus Smart had walked off the court, he was shouting, pointing his finger and slapping away the hands of anyone who tried to console him.

In his return from a three-game suspension that began with a shove at Texas Tech, Smart walked off court with a big smile. Then he gave his coach a big hug.

“It was good to see him smile,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who returned the embrace.

“Hadn’t see that in a while.”

The Marcus Smart who rose to college basketball stardom while playing with infectious joy -- instead of contagious frustration -- finally resurfaced Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena. The menacing two-way player resurfaced, too, lifting Oklahoma State to a convincing 84-62 victory over the Red Raiders to snap the school’s longest losing streak in 41 years.

“Marcus was the difference,” said teammate Le’Bryan Nash, who led the Cowboys with 21 points. “Getting our point guard back, our leader back, it was exciting. He controlled the whole game. That’s what we’ve needed. It was an ‘A-plus’ performance for him.”

In other words, Smart looked like his old self.

He scored 16 points, dished out a career-high 10 assists and stole the ball six times, not including two offensive fouls he forced with tenacious defense.

“It was fun out there for the first time in a long time,” Smart confessed.

The frustration of underperforming as his NBA draft stock tumbled on a team that was massively underachieving finally got the best of Smart on Feb. 8 in Lubbock, Texas.

Hearing something that may or may not have been said, he charged into the stands and shoved Texas Tech fan Jeffrey Orr, which prompted the suspension.

Smart was in Stillwater while his teammates got routed at Texas. He was in the locker room when they fell to Bedlam rival Oklahoma. And he watched on TV as they came up short in an overtime defeat at Baylor.

“It was crazy being able to practice with my team and not to get to play with them,” Smart said. “I felt lost.”

But while away, Smart seemed to find himself. He also saw some of what had been ailing a team that had lost seven in a row. And back on the court, he finally played without the draft or preseason expectations weighing down his broad shoulders.

"When he's playing his best," Ford said, "he energizes everybody."

After a four-minute scoring drought, Smart energized the Cowboys midway through the first half. Collecting a deflection, he flipped the ball behind his head to Markel Brown for an easy layup. After Phil Forte nailed a 3-pointer, Smart stepped in front of a Texas Tech pass and finished the play with a finger roll. Brown canned a 3 on the following possession, capping a 12-2 run that ended with Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith calling a timeout.

"Whenever you have a player of Marcus Smart's caliber, it can take you to another level,” Smith said. “They were energized having Marcus back."

During another critical sequence seconds before halftime, Smart muscled his way into the lane for a driving basket. He stole the ensuing inbounds pass and banked in the shot just before the buzzer sounded, giving the Cowboys a nine-point lead.

“It was a big momentum change for us,” Smart said. “Definitely got this crowd into it. Took the life out of Tech going into halftime.”

The Cowboys swarmed Texas Tech in the second half, before Smart delivered the exclamation point. In the last two minutes, he bounded through the lane for a left-handed jam. The next possession, after his jump shot was partially blocked, Smart managed to bat the ball to Kamari Murphy under the basket for another slam.

Moments later, Ford subbed him out to a standing ovation. Leading to a big Smart smile.

“Positive energy is kinda weird,” Smart said. “It becomes contagious. Losing was very contagious. With this victory, if we can play like we played today, maybe that can become contagious, and we can start a different streak. A winning streak.”

Despite losing seven in a row, Oklahoma State kept its NCAA tournament hopes flickering with Saturday’s win. Sure, the Cowboys hammered a Texas Tech team long on coaching and short on talent, especially with leading scorer Jaye Crockett hobbled by tendonitis in his knee.

But this wasn’t just the best Oklahoma State had played since Smart’s suspension. It was the best the Cowboys had looked at least since beating Texas in early January, and maybe all the way back to the nonconference portion of the schedule when they jumped to a 12-1 start and a No. 6 ranking in the polls.

“Doesn’t mean we’re back,” Ford cautioned. “Doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It just means we’re capable.”

The Cowboys had showed signs of being capable, even before Smart's return. Despite its depleted roster, Oklahoma State carried a lead over the Sooners into the final two minutes.

Having to use an array of walk-ons, the Cowboys simply ran out of gas at Baylor.

“The last two games, we played decently, played hard,” Ford said. “We were hoping that when Marcus came back, we would build on that and he would help us take that next step. Today we did. Don’t know about tomorrow. But we did today.”

If Oklahoma State (17-10, 5-9 Big 12) can keep taking such steps, the NCAA tournament could still be within reach. The Cowboys go to last-place TCU on Monday before getting Kansas in Stillwater next weekend. A victory over the Jayhawks might be enough to take Oklahoma State back to the right side of the bubble.

“When your back is against the wall, and that’s the only way out, amazing things can happen,” Ford said.

Especially when Marcus Smart is playing with a smile.