Cade Cunningham vowed to lead Oklahoma State to a strong run through the NCAA Tournament. The freshman All-American didn't have an explosive debut, but did just enough to lead the Cowboys to a 69-60 victory over Liberty on Friday night in a Midwest Region first round game.
Cunningham scored 15 points -- nine straight in the final minutes -- to lead No. 4 seed Oklahoma State to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2009. Avery Anderson III led the Cowboys with 21 points.
Cunningham before the tournament began said he planned to emulate Carmelo Anthony, who in 2003 led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman. But the Big 12 Conference player of the year struggled for most his debut until his late surge gave OSU (21-8) breathing room against the stubborn Flames (23-6).
Anderson picked up the offensive slack for Oklahoma State and scored 14 points in the first half. He shot 8 of 14, including a three-point play with 10:25 remaining for a 50-44 lead, and grabbed seven rebounds.
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Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe added 10 points for OSU, which faces Oregon State in Sunday's second round. The 12th-seeded Beavers upset fifth-seeded Tennessee earlier Friday.
Elijah Cuffee had 16 points and Darius McGhee 12 for Atlantic Sun champion Liberty, which had won its previous 12 games. Liberty was seeking another NCAA upset two years after bouncing Mississippi State in the first round.
Both teams' fan bases provided loud support in 6,800-seat Indiana Farmers Coliseum, home to IUPUI of the Horizon League and the Indy Fuel ECHL team. Liberty's socially-distanced fans cheered the Eagles from the eastern end of the 82-year-old arena, where capacity was held at 1,200 because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Not to be outdone, several hundred fans on the west end tried to provide energy for the Cowboys. It worked as OSU finished much better than it played for many stretches.
Liberty didn't buckle to the taller Cowboys or 6-foot-8 Cunningham and earned its share of 50/50 balls. McGhee's long-range shooting gave teammates the confidence to contribute and keep Oklahoma State honest defensively. But Liberty went cold several times in the second half.
Oklahoma State's play was uneven for much of the night, but the Cowboys adapted and were able to create opportunities in the second half. They shot just 40% but held Liberty to 36% shooting after halftime, and that made a difference.