STILLWATER, Okla. -- Marcus Smart came flying out of nowhere, secured the ball and kicked it back out to a teammate, all in one motion.
Marcus Smart was going to impose his will during the final four minutes.
And that’s exactly what the Cowboys point guard did.
"He made big plays down the stretch huge plays," OSU coach Travis Ford said. "There aren’t many [players] that have his competitive toughness."
Competitive toughness, will and desire are just a few of the words that could be used to describe Smart’s excellence when it mattered most on Saturday night. Simply put, he took over the game with a mindset that he would not be denied.
"We were extra focused tonight," he said. "We knew we would have to close out the game down the stretch if it came down to it, especially if we wanted to win."
Smart scored eight points in the final 4:24 after his offensive board, sparking a 12-4 run to secure the win for OSU and give the Cowboys’ NCAA tournament hopes a much-needed boost. The Cowboys trailed 61-60, and the sophomore was 2-of-11 from the field when Smart’s hustle resulted in another OSU possession.
Smart had 20 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in the final 20 minutes. Those second-half numbers came after a first half that saw him head into the locker room shooting 0-of-7 from the field with more turnovers than assists (two to one). The preseason Big 12 player of the year finished with 21 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 1 block.
"My teammates stayed in my ear and told me keep shooting, keep driving and to just do what I do," Smart said. "They told me [to] let my defense create my offense, so that's what I was trying to do. I think I had four steals, so I got back to what I do, and I let my game come back to me in the second half."
His second-half performance was a not-so-subtle reminder why Smart entered the season as one of the national player of the year candidates. Images of him pushing a fan or smacking a chair in disgust during OSU’s struggles in Big 12 play have made it easy to forget why Smart’s name was on the lips of all college basketball fans heading into the season.
As the calendar turned to March, Smart turned his play up another notch.
"When you’re great at something and it’s not going your way for a while, you’re not just going to quit," Ford said of Smart’s first-half struggles. "Marcus struggled a lot, but then, he made a lot of big plays. After the game, I told him he's a piece of work. You have to stick with him because he's going to make plays. He's a competitor."
Smart’s performance helped the Cowboys improve to 19-10, 7-9 in in the Big 12 and extended their win streak to three games after a seven-game losing streak during February.
"Our focus was different tonight," Smart said. "Losing those seven straight games opened our eyes to a lot of things, with a majority of those being not closing out a lot of those games."
OSU’s tournament hopes have been in jeopardy since that seven-game Big 12 losing streak, but there’s no doubt where the Cowboys belong come tournament time in the eyes of Jayhawks coach Bill Self.
"They’re definitely a tournament team. They’re too talented," Self said. "They can get hot and make a serious run. There’s no question."