The Cowboys looked like a lock for the NCAA Tournament just 12 days ago after defeating Baylor in Waco. But since then they have lost three in a row – including the back-to-back home losses to Iowa State on Wednesday night and Saturday’s 10-point loss to West Virginia – and are flirting with the proverbial NCAA bubble with three games remaining in the regular season.
OSU falls to 17-10 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. West Virginia improves to 21-6 overall and 9-5 in conference play. It was the Mountaineers first victory over the Cowboys since joining the Big 12. OSU was 4-0 in games with the Mountaineers the last two years.
“Our backs are against the wall to an extent,” Ford said. “We still have some goals in front of us that are attainable, but we’ve put ourselves a little bit with the backs to the wall. We’re not all the way there yet but it’s very, very close.
“We have three games left to correct some of this. We’ve played some good teams. Obviously the last three losses, TCU is playing good basketball right now and the last two teams are ranked teams that just outplayed us. I hate to make any excuses and we did get whipped in the second half.
“We have to have more team effort on offense. There are things within our team that we’ve got to be able to count on with certain guys. We’re not getting things that normally we can count on from certain guys. We have to figure out why not, and maybe get other guys to step up. Right now, we’re not a mirror of our team that we were three weeks ago.”
The Cowboys jumped out to a quick 13-4 lead against the Mountaineers as Anthony Hickey drained a pair of three-pointers and Tavarius Shine added another trey on three consecutive possessions early in the game. West Virginia made its first shot of the game but then missed eight in a row and committed four turnovers before head coach Bob Huggins called a timeout with 12:26 remaining in the first half.
From that point on the Mountaineers were a different team. They went on a 9-0 run – the Cowboys went more than six minutes without scoring a point – to pull even, and the game was tied 25-25 at halftime.
After shooting only 32 percent from the field and committing 11 turnovers in the first half, the Mountaineers took control in the final 20 minutes of play. West Virginia shot 50 percent from the field, including making six of eight three-pointers, and only turned the ball over twice in the second half. The Mountaineers scored on 24 of 32 possessions in the second half.
The Mountaineers used a 16-6 run to open the second half, stretching their lead to 41-31 on Gary Browne’s two free throws with just a little more than 13 minutes left in the game. OSU would trim the lead to eight on several occasions but the Cowboys never made a serious run.West Virginia out-rebounded OSU 37-20 (with 18 offensive boards), just four days after the Cowboys were out-rebounded 44-28 by Iowa State (and the Cyclones had 18 offensive boards).
“We’re just struggling in second halves right now,” Ford said. “I don’t know why at this point. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll answer the challenge. I’m not promising wins but we’ll get guys out there that are going to fight and play, and dedicate themselves and do the things on the court and off the court that will give ourselves a chance.
“The last couple of games it hasn’t been about the scouting report, it’s just coming down to teams whipping us. We talk about offensive rebounding and keeping the other team from getting second-chance points in the scouting report but that’s a will, that’s a desire … I told our team that maybe we would have turned it over 100 times tonight but I wouldn’t have thought we’d give up a bunch of offensive rebounds after the last game. That’s what’s disappointing.
“We’ve just got to find out why we’re not playing the second half, and get the right guys out there. Right now we’re not competing in the second halves, and we’ve got to find an answer to that.”
OSU’s Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte, the second- and third-leading scorers in the Big 12, combined for 22 points, nearly 12 below their average. Nash’s 12 points led the Cowboys but he was only 3-of-9 shooting (he scored 29 on the Mountaineers the last time the two teams played a year ago), while Forte finished with 10 points but was just 1-of-3 shooting (and did not make a three-pointer for only the second time in 27 games this season).
The Mountaineers were led by standout guard Juwan Staten with 22 points and seven assists, while Gary Browne scored a career-high 18 points with eight rebounds (five offensive boards) and two steals.
OSU lost back-to-back home games in Travis Ford’s first season to Missouri (Jan. 21, 2009) and Oklahoma (Jan. 26, 2009), and then lost three in a row during a rough stretch last season (76-70 to Baylor, Feb. 1, 2014; 98-97 in triple overtime to Iowa State, Feb. 3, 2014, and 77-74 to Oklahoma, Feb. 15, 2014).
The Cowboys get plenty of time to regroup following their third straight loss. They don’t get back on the court again until next Saturday when they travel to Lubbock, Texas to face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders (12-16 overall and 2-13 in the conference) are in last place in the Big 12. OSU beat Tech 63-43 on Jan. 21 in Stillwater.
“We’re going to use this time (off) as much as we can without wearing them out,” Ford said. “I just want to find out what we’re made of as a team, the character of this team, and try to figure out who we can count on, who we can go to war with. We’re going to use this week to do that.
“We’re not going to put anything new in. We’ll probably do 10,000 block-out drills but I want to see which guys this really means something to because we still have some goals in front of us, and their our biggest ones are still in front of us and attainable.”