Now if the Cowboys players were looking for about half of the fans they can normally count on their side in Bedlam at home in Gallagher-Iba Arena, they were apparently self imposing a suspension of watching the Cowboys. They weren't in their seats and there wasn't room for them to be back in the lounge watching with Smart.
Wherever they were, hopefully it was in front of a television to see Phil Forte as he did all he could do to try and make up for the absence of his longtime close friend and teammate. If they stayed with it then in huge second half they saw Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash pick it up and hold up their end as part of the trio this season's hopes were built on.
Forte played well in so many ways, but oddly enough struggled in one of the strongest attributes of his game, making free throws. Brown and Nash were good in the first half but essential in the second half.
Forte's first half repertoire included an acrobatic shot underneath the basket, something you rarely see from the 5-11 guard, a classic three-pointer from the wing that put the Cowboys up 13-7 at the 14:39 mark. He had mistakes as he kicked the ball once leading to an Oklahoma run out basket but he also made plays like clearing himself on a drive that stopped at the elbow for a jump shot.
Oklahoma took the lead for good in the first half when Tyler Neal, a nemesis from the first Bedlam game in Norman, hit a three with 8:52 left in the half and was also fouled on a senseless move by Brown.
Forte still played well as he had a drive all the way to the basket that he persistently willed into the basket and drew the foul. However, Forte uncharacteristically missed the free throw and later missed the front end of a one-and-one. What he didn't miss was a three from some six feet off the three-point line with 12 seconds left in the half to close the score to 39-37 Oklahoma and that was how the half ended. Forte, displaying the leadership on the floor, had 13 points in the first half.
"I'm just trying to play for these guys that came back for us," said Forte. "For Markel, Marcus, and Le'Bryan, I want to get us where those guys wanted to be coming back. Anything I can do, but right now we're doing the best we can."
In the second half, Oklahoma did its best to put the defensive clamp on Forte. But his teammates picked up the slack and between Browns jumpers and slams from Nash and Kamari Murphy, who was also owning the glass, the Cowboys rallied to outscore Oklahoma 17-9 to start the second half.
The Cowboys kept hugging that lead until Oklahoma tied it up at the 7:15 mark at 57-57. Right after they did Forte was fouled by Woodard and missed another free throw, again almost an anomaly. He had been 22 of 23 free throws in Big 12 play coming into the game.
After Oklahoma got a three to finish a 12-3 run and take a 60-57 lead, the persistent Cowboys got drives from Brian Williams and Markel Brown to take it back at 63-60. Brown again on a jumper made it 65-60. On this day the depth-strapped Cowboys would not go away.
"We came out and played with a sense of pride, help defense when somebody would get best on the dribble," Brown said.
That said, this Bedlam, with both teams challenged and missing components, came down to the end. Buddy Hield hit two three-pointers between the 1:30 mark and 1:02 to put Oklahoma up 71-68.
Forte, being hounded by opposing defenders, missed a three. Forte had to foul and the freshman Jordan Woodard hit both free throws. Still, the Cowboys wouldn't say "uncle" as Brown got a shooters bounce on a three-pointer to close within two at 73-71.
Je'lon Hornbeak hit a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds left to make it 75-71. Then with 5.1 seconds left Forte hit for the first time in the second half from the corner to again make it a one-point game at 75-74. But Hornbeak again knocked down a pair to preserve Oklahoma a 77-74 lead.
At the buzzer, Brown got a good look but as with so many circumstances this season the potential for glory faded into disappointment.
"Coach just wanted us to rush the ball up the floor and they double-teamed and I lost track of time and just fired up a shot," Brown said of the plan on the last shot. "I was hoping it would go down. We fell a little short at the end and it hurt, it hurt."
Brown, Forte and Nash combined for 112 minutes and 57 of the Cowboys 74 points. Three standout players with three heroic efforts playing nearly the entire game, but it wasn't enough.
The season certainly is slipping away as Brown was asked if it is still possible to finish where this team wanted to finish. For the first time a Cowboy player mentioned the Big 12 Tournament. After saying the game Monday on the road at Baylor was very winnable, Brown said we can always make a run in the Big 12 Tournament.
The Cowboys may be one or two losses away from having to bank on a conference tournament run to go any further.