Travis Ford teared up during his postgame interview Thursday after Oklahoma State thwarted Akron's upset bid in overtime. The embattled Cowboys coach may need an entire box of tissues after Sunday night's win.
Oklahoma State secured perhaps the most impressive victory of Ford's five-year tenure in Stillwater, clobbering sixth-ranked North Carolina State 76-56 in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-off Challenge.
The successful weekend in Puerto Rico should ease some of the pressure on Ford, who has recruited well at Oklahoma State the past two years but lost 18 games last season and did not make the past two NCAA tournaments. The Cowboys should enter the AP Top 25 on Monday after locking down a quality Tennessee team in Friday's semifinal and validating that performance by embarrassing the preseason ACC favorites on Sunday.
What makes this year's Oklahoma State team better than the past few is the presence of freshman point guard Marcus Smart, who proved none of the preseason hype he received was empty words.
Smart thoroughly outplayed all-ACC counterpart Lorenzo Brown, contributing everything from points, to steals, to hustle plays that didn't show up in the box score. His final stat line was one of the best any player has produced this season: 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals and four blocks.
The competitiveness, leadership and defensive focus of Smart seems to have rubbed off on his teammates. Sophomore Le'Bryan Nash not only scored 23 points but also showcased more intensity and smarter shot selection than he did a year ago. Phil Forte also impacted the game with his outside shooting once again, knocking own four 3-pointers off the bench.
If the headline from Puerto Rico was Oklahoma State's emergence, then the sidebar to that will be NC State's listless performance. The Wolfpack had looked the part of a top 10 team in previous wins over Penn State and UMass, but they lost their composure in a hurry on Sunday when things did not go their way early.
C.J. Leslie had only two points on 1-for-5 shooting when he picked up his fourth foul with 17 minutes to go in the game and fouled out when referees whistled him for a technical for mouthing off about the original call. Brown managed only six points on 2-for-9 shooting, a poor performance that his discouraged body language didn't help.
Freshmen Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren did an admirable job trying to pick up the slack, but their combined 31 points wasn't even enough to keep NC State competitive. All in all, it was a performance reminiscent of last year's UConn team, which began the season in the top 10 but battled effort and chemistry issues in barely scraping out an NCAA bid.
Of course, this was only one loss for NC State and the Wolfpack will have plenty of chances to prove they're worthy of their lofty preseason ranking. And this was only one win for Oklahoma State — but it was a big one, one that will restore some faith in Travis Ford and in the Cowboys' chances of contending in the Big 12.
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