Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham hits game-winner in return against Arkansas: 'I just had fun today'
STILLWATER — Cade Cunningham helped make the decision for Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton. Cunningham — the possible No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick — would come off the bench.
He had not played in 18 days due to COVID-19 protocols.
Boredom overtook his life while being stuck inside his on-campus apartment for the better part of 10 days. No basketball. No physical activities.
Coming back against Arkansas and interrupting the Cowboys’ new starting five’s strong rhythm didn’t feel right. Kalib Boone had earned the right to start Saturday.
So, for possibly the only time in his college basketball career, Cunningham was the sixth man.
And it was certainly not boring.
Cunningham hit a step-back jumper over Arkansas’ Davonte Davis with 21.3 seconds remaining to lift the Cowboys to a thrilling 81-77 victory inside Gallagher-Iba Arena, capping his anticipated return with his second game-winning shot of the season.
“I just had fun today,” Cunningham said. “I’m glad to be back.
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“I think just going out there and having fun hooping was, I mean, that's all I really cared about. And coming out with the win was the cherry on top.”
Cunningham scored the Cowboys’ final six points, including two free shots with 3.8 seconds remaining. He finished with 21 points — 14 in the final half — seven rebounds and five assists.
All in 31 minutes and 7 seconds, just 2.7 minutes below his season average.
“I’m just feeling him out,” Boynton said. “That’s part of what this relationship is about is trusting each other. He knew I wasn’t going to put him out there with any risk. We waited the time we needed to.
“I was going to play him as much as I could, like I normally would. There wasn’t a number I was looking for. We just kind of played him as we saw he could help us.”
Cunningham entered the game with 16:38 remaining in the opening half to a loud ovation from the limited-capacity crowd.
But he first struggled with his conditioning.
“Just the first couple up-and-downs kind of had me winded,” Cunningham said. “Just kind of getting accustomed to the pace of the game.”
Four minutes later, Cunningham went to the bench. He played just 13 minutes in the opening half.
But his adrenaline was flowing in the second half. Cunningham played all but 2 minutes.
“I really wasn't too worried about my fatigue or the fact that I missed so many days,” Cunningham said. “I just tried to feel myself and be in the moment. I did that, and eventually I got comfortable again.”
The Cowboys needed their star to deliver.
Arkansas — a similar team to the Cowboys with their length and up-tempo attack — was troublesome. It forced OSU into 15 first-half turnovers. The Razorbacks led multiple times down the stretch.
Kalib Boone was in the midst of a third straight strong game, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Cowboys had foul issues with point guards Avery Anderson III and Isaac Likekele.
So, Cunningham took over.
With 1:53 remaining, he hit a go-ahead floater off the backboard for a 77-75 lead. Davis made a layup to tie the game with 1:18 remaining.
Cunningham and Likekele both missed 3-pointers, but Cunningham still had another big shot in him.
With the clock ticking down, he dribbled to his left, stepped back and fired the jumper. He grabbed the rebound off a block from Boone on Connor Vanover’s 3 with 3.8 seconds remaining. After being fouled, Cunningham made two free shots.
He then intercepted Arkansas’ inbound pass, setting off a celebration.
“Part of the knock on him was, ‘Can he take over as a scorer?’” Boynton said. “I think that question was answered with a resounding yes today, because he certainly made every play on the offensive end that we needed him to make late in the game.”