SAN DIEGO – Marcus Smart came back for ... this?
Oklahoma State’s undeniably talented but oftentimes maddening star likely played his last college game Friday, a 85-77 loss to ninth seed Gonzaga Friday. He’ll leave Stillwater with 1,064 career points but zero NCAA tournament victories, plus that reputation-tarnishing three-game suspension.
"Words can't explain how disappointed I am," a forlorn Smart said in a hallway outside his locker room afterward. "We didn't accomplish the goals we set for ourselves."
Throughout Friday’s game, Smart seemed to be having an ongoing conversation with the officials. “I got pushed again!” he yelled at one point in the first half after no foul was called. That would prove a rarity on a night when officials called 61 such whistles, including one in particular that surely pleased Smart’s critics. With 7:04 left and Oklahoma State trailing by 10, Smart spotted up for an apparent three-point attempt but instead made a not-so-subtle attempt to draw a foul, hurling the ball in such a way that it somehow flew behind him. Not only did Gonzaga’s Gary Bell Jr. fail to take the bait, but officials levied Smart with a foul for plowing into Bell on his way down.
Several of his postgame comments involved frustrations with the officiating.
"Every call went against us, no matter what," said Smart, who played the last 3:38 with four fouls. "... The fouls are a momentum-changer. It's a Debbie Downer for you."
A projected lottery pick, Smart put off the NBA after his freshman season in part because of the Cowboys’ early exit against 12th seed Oregon in last year’s tourney. His roller-coaster sophomore year began with a masterful 39-point performance against Memphis on Nov. 19 but soon became defined more for his penchant for flopping and a Feb. 8 incident with a fan at Texas Tech amidst a seven-game Cowboys losing streak. Oklahoma State won four straight upon his return, including an upset of fifth-ranked Kansas, and appeared to enter the NCAA tourney with momentum. It drew a tough adversary in Gonzaga.
Ultimately, the game came down to three-point shooting – Gonzaga hit 9-of-18, Oklahoma State just 3-of-15. After the Cowboys got it to 53-50 at the 11:18 mark, Bell came out of a timeout and drained a three, notched a steal off Smart and hit a lay-up on the other end to go back up 58-50. Kevin Pangos’ own trey with 7:47 left pushed the margin back to 62-52, and Oklahoma State never got much closer than that.
As for Smart, the box score will show he finished with an impressive 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals. According to ESPN, be became the first player in tourney history to record 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals. But much like last year’s Oregon game, he was passive on offense much of the night. He did not make his first field goal of the second half until just 6:23 remained. He also missed six of his first 13 free throws and had six turnovers.
Smart once again reiterated he had "no regrets" about returning to school.
"Not one bit," he said. "I got to do something not a lot of kids could ever say they did. I played in the NCAA tournament twice."
Gonzaga moves on to the Round of 32 where it looks to make amends for last year’s upset to eighth-seeded Wichita State by flipping the script on this year’s West No. 1 seed, Arizona. Friday’s big performances by guards Pangos (26 points) and Bell (17) should provide some encouragement heading into their clash with Wildcats standouts Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell.
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