OSU's Season Ends With First-Round NIT Loss

For the third season in a row the Oklahoma State basketball season ended in disappointment in a tournament the team would rather have not been participating in. The Cowboys lost to Missouri Valley traditional powerhouse Southern Illinois, 69-53, in rainy Carbondale, Ill., in the first round of the MasterCard NIT Tournament.

After a lackluster first half the Cowboys came alive early in the second half as Ibrahima Thomas took a pass inside from Byron Eaton and scored while drawing a foul. Then James Anderson flashed back to his early season form as he scored on a tip in, off a steal, and then bombed a three and the Cowboys had tied the score with Southern Illinois at 29-29. That's when the ghosts of the Cowboys' last NCAA Tournament returned.

In their last NCAA Tournament appearance the Cowboys had beaten the Salukis in the Ford Center in Oklahoma City 85-77 in a second-round NCAA match-up. Three players were still around from that meeting that now seems ancient. Marcus Dove, who wrapped his OSU carrer in this game, had played less than a minute in that March Madness meeting, while SIU seniors Matt Shaw and Randal Falker played more for the Salukis. Shaw had 10 points and five rebounds in the game and Falker fouled out with no points. Both did better in this meeting.

After Anderson had willed the Cowboys to a tie, Shaw nailed a three, one of his four in the game (he was 4-of-7 from three-point range), and Falker took a charge on the defensive end from the Cowboys Obi Muonelo and then scored on a follow slam on the other end to make it 34-29.

Later Falker, with an up and under move in the lane, scored on Byron Eaton to make it 36-29. Falker would finish with 17 points and instead of fouling out was taken out to an ovation along with Shaw with about a minute to play. Shaw had expanded the Salukis lead to a convincing nine points in the defensive dominated game with a trey from the corner to make it 49-40. Shaw finished as the game's leading scorer with 21 points.

The game actually started with a defensive posture by each team as Byron Eaton made the first of seven first-half steals almost immediately after Southern Illinois won the opening tip. However, Eaton's takeaway resulted in no points when the Salukis forced the Cowboys to pass the ball around for nearly 30 seconds before missing a contested shot, one of many defensive stops by SIU in the first half.

Sputhern Illinois led the entire first half and extended the lead to seven points twice late in the half. The first time off a perfect inbounds play when Matt Shaw used a screen for a clean look on a baseline jumper that made it 24-17. After the Cowboys missed their 10th straight three-point attempt to start the game, Tony Boyle on the other end found an open path down the baseline and banked the short shot to finish the drive and the eventual halftime score of 26-19.

While the Cowboys had seven steals in the first half they also missed on all 11 of their three-point tries. A few of those were open looks but most were contested shots that should have been passed for better scoring opportunities. It was really Terrell Harris that kept Oklahoma State in the first half as he had eight of the 19 halftime points.

Marcus Dove and Byron Eaton each converted steals into lay ups on the offensive end, but the Cowboys also missed point-blank shots inside. The combination of the missed threes and the missed easy opportunities inside were a fatal combination all season. This time the two ghosts from an NCAA Tournament past emphasized those Cowboy shortcomings with strong play on their part.

Southern Illinois is now 18-14 and likely will travel to the desert to play the most controversial team left out of this year's NCAA Tournament in Arizona State.

Oklahoma State finishes with a record of 17-16 for the second time in three seasons. It will be a young team that will return for next year with, as ESPN's Fran Fraschilla said at least four times during the nationally televised broadcast, 85 percent of their scoring returning.

The major question to be answered is whether head coach Sean Sutton will return. It has been an issue driven by several members of the media the second half of the season. Because of that attention that started when Eddie Sutton, former OSU head coach and father of Sean Sutton, went on a Tulsa radio station and pleaded for the OSU administration to give Sean a "vote of confidence," Sean's future as head coach has been questioned in many quarters.

OSU athletic director Mike Holder has remained silent on the issue including when he was asked about it on Monday night. As is his policy he will meet with Sean to review the season now that it has concluded. The results of that review will be eagerly anticipated.

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