Guard’s return a big boost for OSU against WVU
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Isaac Likekele says he’s 100% other than his injured right hand.
That is at a percentage high enough that Oklahoma State’s leader can finally play. There is still pain and frustration.
“I’ve been better,” Likekele said, “but nothing to complain about.”
Likekele can finally grip a basketball with his large hand. He can finally pass and dribble. Recently, none of that was possible.
None of that affects his ability to play defense or rebound, the gritty things he’s known to do well.
Like coming up with big defensive rebounds twice in the final 30 seconds.
Or blocking the tying shot with 4 seconds remaining.
That stretch sealed No. 12-ranked OSU’s dramatic 72-69 victory over No. 10 West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals Thursday morning at T-Mobile Center.
“I’m just trying to find other ways to impact the game to help win,” Likekele told The Oklahoman.
A year ago to the day, Likekele made the Cowboys’ game-winning layup in the final seconds against Iowa State to open a Big 12 Tournament that had just two games played before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the season.
The Cowboys know there is a tomorrow this time, and it’s a matchup with No. 2 Baylor at 5:30 p.m.
OSU is finally full strength. Cade Cunningham scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his return from an ankle sprain suffered against Baylor. Avery Anderson III scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half.
Likekele — the team’s heartbeat — returning is the biggest addition for the postseason.
“He shows up when we need him to show up,” Anderson said. “He’s just a big-time player and that’s what we need.”
OSU coach Mike Boynton calls Likekele the most important player in the program. For all but one game the past month, Likekele was reduced to being a player coach on the sideline.
“Certainly tremendous having him back,” Boynton said in his postgame opening statement.
Even coming off the bench Thursday, that was evident.
In 26 minutes, Likekele had eight points, seven rebounds and three assists. He made 4 of 6 shots — primarily layups due to his injury — but missed all three free shots.
Likekele classified it as a good game, though he knows his numbers are usually better. But it’s not about that right now.
Winning is all that matters in March.
And Likekele is a winner who is motivated.
“I believe that recruiting winners has to be a big priority,” Boynton said. “We have guys who all won and all understand what it takes to have success as a team.
“He leads us in that regard. He’s always talking about the little things that don’t get a whole lot of fanfare. He’s talking about blocking out and running shooters off the line and securing rebounds with two hands.
“And I’d say he’s pretty close to having a masters in winning at this point.”
As a freshman, the Cowboys did not get a postseason opportunity.
“We actually had a spring break,” Likekele said.
Last year, the NIT Tournament was the best chance. But the pandemic ruined that.
Now, Likekele and Co. are playing for a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament with each game this week. ESPN projected them as a No. 3 seed after the win.
“I think we can win this whole thing if we just stay focused one game at a time,” Likekele said about this weekend.
The key will be Likekele.
He’ll never be the team’s best offensive threat, especially with his hand injury. But he’s a bulldog everywhere else.
With 29 seconds remaining in a one-point game, he grabbed a huge defensive rebound. He quickly got the pass to Cunningham, the team’s best free-shot shooter. West Virginia’s Emmitt Matthews Jr. took the ball away, though, before missing the layup.
Likekele again grabbed the rebound. This time, he passed to Bryce Williams, who was fouled before making two free shots.
On the final possession, Likekele switched with Anderson to guard Taz Sherman on the inbound. Likekele expected a step-back trey from Sherman, who had made four 3s in the half. When it happened, Likekele timed his jump perfectly.
He blocked the shot.
In the mayhem that followed, West Virginia’s Sean McNeil was unable to get the tying 3-pointer off before the final buzzer.
Finally, Likekele was able to make his mark on a game.
“I care about winning a lot,” Likekele said. “I can’t really do everything I want to, but I know for sure I can rebound, play defense and I can communicate and be a leader out there for my team. That’s what I did today and we came out with a win.”