Cowboys return to court for first time after plane crash

Tuesday, February 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- When the game was over and his Oklahoma State basketball team had beaten Missouri, coach Eddie Sutton couldn't help himself. He cried.

Sutton had just led the Cowboys to a 69-66 victory Monday night in their first game since a Jan. 27 plane crash in Colorado killed two players and eight other members of the team's traveling party.

"This game was one of the most important games I've ever coached in," said Sutton, who has coached 935 games in 31 years.

"It would have been devastating not to win.

"It's a very, very important win for Oklahoma State University.

It's important because it continues this healing process that all of us are going through."

Spurred throughout by a boisterous crowd, the Cowboys used a second-half run to take the lead and held on at the end. Fredrik Jonzen tied a career best with 26 points, Maurice Baker had 22 and Andre Williams had 15 rebounds and four blocks.

"This past week has probably been one of the toughest times in my life, if not the worst," Jonzen said. "And tonight was probably the best time of my life."

Many in the crowd, along with the coaches from both schools, wore orange ribbons in memory of the victims. The main lobby of the arena remained filled with flowers and handwritten messages to the victims.

The students, most of them in place 90 minutes before tipoff, gave each of the Oklahoma State players a standing ovation as they filed out, a few at a time, for the pregame shootaround. Jonzen, the first out, applauded back at them with upraised arms.

The players received a standing ovation as they trotted to the dressing room shortly before the game. Then, moments later, the arena fell silent for 30 seconds to honor the victims.

Four minutes before gametime, the arena rocked with noise once again as the team came onto the floor. Sutton followed moments later, trailed by nearly a dozen television cameras.

The game program was dedicated to the victims and the cover featured a picture of each. The lineup sheets provided to media listed the names of players Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming, with a ribbon alongside each. The Cowboys uniforms included a black square on the chest with the number 10 and a ribbon inside.

"It was hard to just focus on basketball," Williams said.

"I'm just used to looking over and glancing at a couple of faces that weren't there. At times, it was hard to just focus on the game. But it's going to be an empty feeling from here on out. I just have to play through it."

Once the game began, it was business as usual -- Sutton coming out of his seat several times, either to holler at his players or the officials.

The Cowboys (14-4, 5-2 Big 12) used a 13-4 run midway through the second half to take a 59-52 lead. Missouri (14-7, 5-3) fought back and made it a one-point game, 65-64, on Brian Grawer's steal and layup with 1:39 left.

Baker sank four free throws in the final 45.5 seconds to keep the Cowboys up by three. Missouri had a chance to tie it with 3.4 seconds left, but Melvin Sanders stole the inbound pass and the clock ran out.

"I thought Oklahoma State was terrific," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. "They showed the type of character that their team has, their coach has and their program has. This was not an easy game for anybody."

After the final buzzer, the Oklahoma State players celebrated by huddling briefly at midcourt before leaving the floor, and again in the locker room.

"I was emotional," Sutton said. "I got in the dressing room and I think a lot of us were emotional. I don't think I was the only one who shed a tear."

Oklahoma State has been able to hold only a handful of practices since the crash. The Cowboys' first organized workout came last Tuesday, and the next day they gathered with thousands of others for a public memorial service inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Since then, there have been funerals to attend just about every day. The latest was Monday morning, when sports information employee Will Hancock was remembered at a service attended by Sutton and his staff, as well as coaches from across the university.

"These past few days have been brutal for our players, for our coaching staff and certainly for everybody that loves Oklahoma State," Sutton said. "We've got a long ways to go, but we took one step tonight closer to being well."

Monday's game was the start of a busy week for the Cowboys, one that will require them to focus as best they can on the task at hand. They travel to Nebraska on Wednesday and visit Kansas on Saturday.

Sutton said the players will fly to Lincoln, Neb., on two corporate jets. He will travel in a Beechcraft King Air turboprop similar to the one that crashed.

Sutton said he offered to bus the players the eight hours to Nebraska. "They all thought that 55 minutes (in a jet) sounded better than eight hours," he said.