I slipped out of work a little early this afternoon and hopped in the car with my fiancée to make the two-hour, 45-minute drive up I-44 from Tulsa, Okla., to Springfield, Mo., to the campus of Missouri State University. The Bears were hosting the Cowboys from Oklahoma State, a rare visit from a "Big 6" school to the JQH Arena.
After finding parking on campus, we made our way through the cold December night to the arena, noticing the remnants of snow sticking to the grass. JQH Arena is a relatively new building, opening in November of 2008, just after I finished my time at Missouri State. It replaced the Hammons Student Center, which still sits directly next door and continues to host volleyball games. JQH is an impressive building and features frosted glass facades on the upper half of the north and south sides of the building with the top half of the Missouri State Bears logo imposed across the glass. The inside is littered with modern amenities but is also designed to have a feel similar to the old field houses of yesteryear.
As we settled in to our seats on the first row of the upper bowl just before the player introductions, I took a look around the arena and noticed that there were still a decent number of empty seats, which surprised and disappointed me. Although Oklahoma State is no basketball powerhouse and this was a Wednesday night, I still thought the placed would be packed for a Big 12 school. Nevertheless, the place still felt pretty energetic for this big game against the Cowboys. The Bears were coming off back-to-back disappointing performances, including getting dominated by one of their former coaches, Steve Alford, in "The Pit" at New Mexico. Needless to say, the Bears needed to bounce back in a big way in this game and build some momentum as the tough conference season approached.
After the national anthem, a moment of silence to honor the tragic passing of the head coach and an assistant coach of the Oklahoma State women's basketball team, and lineup introductions, the game tipped off favoring the Cowboys. Six-foot-six athletic swing man Jean-Paul Olukemi quickly found his way in to the paint and grabbed the early lead for OSU. It was at this point that I wondered whether the Bears would be ready to play or if they were still in their two game lull. They quickly answered that question with a resounding "No". Six-foot-six senior star Kyle Weems put the Bears on the board early with his signature mid-range jumper, and it was apparent that the Bears were playing with more energy. Early on, both teams executed well on the offensive end of the floor leading to a 5-5 tie at the under-16 time out.
However, the offensive execution quickly ended for Missouri State as OSU stepped up the physicality of the game on the interior forcing the Bears to live on the perimeter. The Bears went four minutes without scoring and looked to be back in their lull from the previous two games. The half proceeded as a back-and-forth game, with OSU holding on to a slim 23-21 lead at the 5:10 mark. It was at this moment that the momentum shifted significantly in the Bears favor. After a personal foul call on OSU against Kyle Weems that was going to lead to a one-and-one opportunity, OSU sophomore guard Markel Brown decided that the physical play didn't end after the whistle, and shoved one of the Missouri State players under the basket. He certainly wasn't subtle about it, because the officials quickly gave him a technical foul. Kyle Weems took advantage of the mistake by Brown, and hit both ends of the one-and-one and both technical free throws to give the Bears a two-point lead and got the rather lethargic crowd going.
But Mr. Weems wasn't done yet. On the next OSU possession, Weems managed to intercept a pass near the top of the key and went on a fast break for a thunderous #OMGDUNX! JQH erupted as everybody shot out of their seats. The dunk helped trigger a 15-6 run for the Bears to close out the half with a 34-27 lead.
When the second half started, the Bears picked up where they left off by scoring five quick points to grab a 12-point lead at the 17:55 mark of the game. This would be the largest lead that the Bears held, as OSU started to chip away at the lead behind their long athletic forwards and the help of the suddenly tight whistles of the officials. The game quickly became a foul-fest, as every bit of contact seemed to get called. The tight whistles seemed to help the Cowboys significantly more the Bears as they continuously found themselves at the free-throw line. Behind the athletic presence of Olukemi and freshman forward Le'Bryan Nash, the Cowboys were able to pull back to a 47-47 tie at the under-12 timeout.
The game continued on at a snail's pace, as foul after foul was called against both sides, sending both teams into the double bonus by the five-minute mark of the game. Despite the fouls, the game was a back-and-forth matchup until the 4:08 mark. It was at this point that senior Bears point guard Michael Bizoukas went 1-for-2 at the free throw line to give the Bears a 67-65 lead. Little did we know this would be the last point scored by Missouri State in the game. Down the stretch the Bears lost the energy and focus that had put them on the verge of a #RLU. Over the last four minutes, the Bears were plagued by poor shots, bad turnovers, and lots of fouls. The Cowboys weren't exactly a picture of offensive brilliance in their own right, but they were able to draw fouls and hit seven free throws in the last four minutes thanks to the extremely tight whistles of the officiating crew. Despite the fact that they didn't score a single field goal in the last five minutes of the game, OSU was able to leave with a 72-67 victory.
It had all looked so promising for the Bears. After a disappointing two-game stretch, they finally looked like they had their passion back. But it was not to be on this night as the Cowboys left the home crowd stunned at what had just happened. It was going to be long drive home to Tulsa.