OKLAHOMA CITY — Jim Littell paced up and down the floor, calling for his team to get back on defense.
Each time his players would score on a late run to make a blowout game to one within reach, he pleaded with them to stop Kansas on the other end.
That wouldn’t come to fruition.
Oklahoma State lost to Kansas 76-66 Friday night in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena, ending its season with a losing record for the first time since the second George W. Bush administration.
The Cowgirls’ season was summed up in the first quarter of their loss, as once again, they allowed their opponent to get out to a big lead – in this case a 30-10 advantage at one point – and couldn’t make up for the early errors.
“They just came out stronger than we did and came out ready to play,” sophomore guard Vivian Gray said. “That’s the bottom line.”
OSU (14-16 overall) struggled to keep the Jayhawks from scoring early layups and couldn’t stymie them on the perimeter as last-place Kansas just added onto its lead with ease.
“They jumped on us early, we didn’t do the things that we needed to do and it is just a big hole to grind out of,” Littell said.
The Cowgirls tried, though, as the offense woke up, thanks to some strong play from junior reserve Clitan de Sousa, providing OSU with a moment of inspiration in an otherwise dark period as she scored 10 points in the contest.
“We bounced back in the second and I am proud of how we did then,” Gray said. “Clitan did really well and played really hard. I think she was a spark for us.”
De Sousa’s play paved the way for Gray, the recently named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, to start scoring in bunches as she once again led the Cowgirls in scoring with 25 points, nearly keeping them in it by herself at times in the second half.
However, despite OSU’s offense pushing the pace in the second half, the Jayhawks (13-17) always found a way to outplay them on the defensive end, never relinquishing their lead.
Gray said she thought she could have played better on defense to try to stop Kansas from doing what it wanted.
“I’m not happy with how I played on defense,” Gray said. “I definitely could have been better. My first quarter definitely wasn’t where it needed to be and I think that definitely led into the hole we dug for ourselves.”
Gray and her usual scoring partner combined for 41 points as fellow sophomore Braxtin Miller had a return to form with 16 points and played more like the All-Conference first-teamer she had been most of the year, rather than the honorable mention one she became after a few lowly weeks.
Miller said she doesn’t know what the issue was, but was happy to see herself play like she knew she could.
“I don’t know really know what the problem is or was,” Miller said. “I guess it’s confidence and trying to stay true to myself. I don’t think anything really switched, I just tried to keep my mind off things and play ball like I know I can.”
The Jayhawks, who OSU swept in the regular season series, were led in scoring by Christalah Lyons’ 21 points and Kylee Kopatich’s 20. The victory was the first time Kansas won a conference tournament game in the seniors’ careers.
“I’m just happy for our seniors,” Kansas coach Brandon Schneider said. “They’ve continued to have really good attitudes. Coming to practice every day, you know, despite the Big 12 record, with the mentality of getting better.”
The difference in the season games and Friday’s was the play of Kopatich, Littell said, as the Cowgirls contained her in the first two contests, but couldn’t in the postseason.
Littell said he was proud of how his team fought and didn’t give up in the second half, but the first-half deficit was too much to overcome.
“When you fall that far behind, it makes every possession from the second quarter on a must-have situation, both offensively and defensively,” Littell said. “When we crawled back in, they got stops. Credit to KU. They were patient. They were waiting for a crack and when they saw it, they took us to the hole on that.”
The loss puts the Cowgirls with their worse record since 2005-06, Littell’s first season in Stillwater when he was an assistant under Kurt Budke. That was also the last time OSU missed the postseason.
Although there were positives, mainly Gray having the season she had after transferring from Division II Fort Lewis College and immediately making an impact, the overall year was disappointing.
Littell said that showed Friday night and that it all comes back on him to get this program back to where it has been.
“It just wasn’t the energy and passion that it takes to play at this level and that all was directly on me,” Littell said. “You have to play hard every possession and can’t take plays off. We are not talented enough to do that and I allowed that to happen so that comes on me.”