How Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham found comfort in hometown debut: 'That allowed me to be me'
ARLINGTON, Texas — Cade Cunningham found comfort in the small arena with more empty blue seats than fans.
He was just miles from his home.
His parents, uncle and other friends and family members wore orange and black in the stands. His trainer, Ashton Jennings, watched.
Some had not seen him play in person in a long time after his two-year venture to Montverde (Florida) Academy.
Seeing them brought calmness in a highly-anticipated debut.
“That allowed me to be me,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham had the entire college basketball world watching Wednesday afternoon in his hometown. He delivered his first-career double double in Oklahoma State’s 75-68 win over Texas-Arlington inside College Park Center.
Twenty-one points. Ten rebounds. Three assists.
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“He was somewhere between a C-plus and B-minus,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “I thought he played the game the right way.”
Even if playing the right way included a somewhat slow start.
Cunningham started the day 0 for 4. He often looked to get his teammates involved, passing first even if a good shot was possible.
But shots weren’t falling for the Cowboys early. UTA was in control.
Then Cunningham delivered a smooth crossover into a short jumper on the baseline with 13:55 remaining in the opening half.
His first basket got him and the Cowboys going.
Cunningham scored 12 of the next 22 points in a myriad of ways. He attacked the basket. He hit jumpers. He hit smooth 3-pointers.
More importantly, he was getting to where he wanted to on the court. UTA couldn’t stop him.
The feeling-out process was over. Cunningham had arrived.
“That’s kinda who he is anyway, to be honest,” Boynton said. “He’s not a super-aggressive, scoring-minded person, but he knows at some point he’s going to have the mindset he’s going to have to take over.
“We saw some moments today where he knew he had to go create offense and his abilities showed. I was really pleased that he’s got that ability.”
Cunningham wasn’t without his faults.
He had five turnovers and some careless fouls. Boynton said Cunningham missed a few defensive assignments too.
Cunningham even got frustrated with the officials, even arguing with one after a turnover.
Cunningham responded with an over-powering layup soon after.
And he never stopped saying the right things in the huddle. He clapped and cheered for teammates on the court.
Cunningham looked every bit the leader he was billed as entering college.
“I just kinda found myself in the game,” Cunningham said. “I think whenever they went into the zone I could have been more aggressive just finding spots to get open and to get shots off.
“For the most part, I think I pretty much played to the system and played for the team. I think we played well.”
It didn’t matter that Cunningham’s homecoming was mired with a pandemic leaving little fans in the stands.
He wasn’t sure what to expect anyway. He found himself as the game went on, much to his and OSU's benefit.
“I came in pretty open-minded and ready to adapt to whatever the game looked like,” Cunningham said. “I think I did that pretty early in the game. After that, I got comfortable.”