In a game that coach Travis Ford said might as well have had NCAA tournament implications, No. 5 Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart might have been the headliner, but former top high school recruit Le’Bryan Nash reminded fans that he, too, is worthy of some serious hype.
Against a hard-charging Butler defense that forced nine turnovers, Nash had 15 points Friday afternoon, including a free throw with less than 10 seconds remaining, which sealed the Cowboys’ 69-67 win in Game 6 at the Old Spice Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Oklahoma State advances to the Old Spice Classic championship game Sunday against the winner of Friday night’s matchup of No. 21 Memphis and LSU.
Nash’s 15 were second only to Smart’s 17 for Oklahoma State (7-0), and the forward, whose college career at times hasn’t equaled expectations, has found a rhythm during this three-day tournament in the early season. In the tournament opener Thursday, Nash finished with 16 points, two assists and five rebounds. He was 8-for-12 from the free-throw line.
Friday, with the Cowboys going 1-for-5 on free throws in the second half, Nash, who finished 3-for-4 from the line, was asked about any pressure he might’ve felt at the line, keeping the Cowboys ahead by two as the clock waned.
“I’ve been in that situation my whole life, especially being one of the top players coming out of high school,” he said with a shrug.
The 6-foot-7 forward’s 10 points in the first half helped Oklahoma State to a 14-point lead at intermission, but the team’s inconsistencies in the second half – which stemmed, Ford said, from the Cowboys getting too comfortable – further propelled the junior to deliver when it counted.
Ford added that the early game plan was all about getting it to Nash. “That was something we definitely wanted to do,” Ford said. “I stayed up all night with the coaches trying to figure out how they were going to guard us. Once we started figuring out what they were doing, then we had some things we wanted to go to, work on some mismatches.”
Nash said the key to the recent evolution in his game has been keeping himself focused. “Every chance I get to go in the gym, I try,” he said. “Work on my post game, because I think I get smaller matchups on me, so I take advantage of them, and when I get a big matchup I just try to go around them and finish. It’s all about finishing. The biggest thing about me is finishing around the rim, and I try to focus on that.”