Cade Cunningham, No. 4 Oklahoma State Hold off No. 13 Liberty in NCAA Tournament

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2021

Oklahoma State forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (12) blocks the shot of Liberty's Chris Parker during the first half of a first round NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 19, 2021, at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Oklahoma State Cowboys are winners in the Big Dance for the first time in 12 years.

No. 4 Oklahoma State defeated the No. 13 Liberty Flames 69-60 in Friday's first-round showdown of the 2021 NCAA men's tournament at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis. Avery Anderson III led the way in the Midwest Region for the victors, who won their first NCAA tournament game since the 2008-09 season.

Cade Cunningham struggled throughout at 3-of-14 from the field and 2-of-8 from deep, but Oklahoma State's team defense was too much for Liberty.

A solid showing from Elijah Cuffee was not enough for the Flames, who were unable to pull off the first-round upset like they did in 2019 against Mississippi State.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

(4) Oklahoma State and @CadeCunningham_ are moving on after the Cowboys’ first tournament win since 2009 🔥 @OSUMBB | #MarchMadness https://t.co/EXMDezcjJG


Notable Player Stats

  • Avery Anderson III, G, OSU: 19 PTS, 8 REB, 4 STL
  • Cade Cunningham, G, OSU: 15 PTS, 4 REB, 2 STL
  • Elijah Cuffee, G, LIB: 16 PTS, 4 AST, 3 REB
  • Blake Preston, F, LIB: 11 PTS, 7 REB, 2 STL


Avery Anderson III, Strong Defense Help OSU Survive Cunningham's Struggles

The national narrative around Oklahoma State starts with Cunningham, and for good reason.

The Big 12 Player and Freshman of the Year told reporters he wants to have a "Melo-type" run in the NCAA tournament, much like Carmelo Anthony did when he led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman in 2003.

His postseason journey started with what figured to be a favorable matchup against a defense that was 170th in KenPom's rankings this season, but that wasn't the case out of the gate. He missed all five of his shots from the field and turned it over three times as the Cowboys slogged their way through the first half.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State are coming alive 🍿 @OSUMBB | #MarchMadness https://t.co/WGL0o2R1Gk

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Cade from deep 🎯 https://t.co/mZPDOpn26r

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Cade Cunningham and-1 😤 OSU back in front https://t.co/BttLDUBRhS

Fortunately for the Big 12 representative, Anderson III came to the rescue by taking defenders off the dribble, extending his game to the outside, battling for boards and anchoring the perimeter defense to keep the team within striking distance during Cunningham's struggles.

While it seemed like a matter of time before Cunningham, who was far more effective in the second half, broke through, Oklahoma State also started to take control by dialing up the full-court pressure and picking up the tempo.

The Cowboys missed multiple opportunities to pull away as they misfired from deep (3-of-15, 20.0 percent), but their efforts on the defensive side, 13 offensive rebounds and overall advantage while putting more pressure on Liberty's ball-handlers made the difference. 

Perhaps the best news for the Cowboys is the fact that they survived and advanced with Cunningham playing poorly by his standards and the three-point shots not falling. Both of those things figure to change, which could mean a deep run.


Turnovers Too Much for Liberty to Overcome

Liberty was not about to be intimidated by a big-conference school.

After all, it faced Purdue, Mississippi State, South Carolina, TCU and Missouri during the regular season, defeating the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. It looked up to the bracket-busting task against another notable program in the early going Friday and took a three-point lead into intermission.

Blake Preston established position down low and scored on the blocks, Darius McGhee found his stroke from outside, and the entire Flames defense swarmed Cunningham whenever he tried to create and prevented the star from taking over.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Liberty Flames aren’t going away 🔥 Tune in to see if Oklahoma State can hold them off: https://t.co/U7aqm2s1g0 https://t.co/4nwqrh4a41

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

This Liberty and-1 finish was unreal 😯 @LibertyMBB_ | #MarchMadness https://t.co/1jsRmSk26B

Liberty Men's Basketball @LibertyMBB_

Four makes from 👌 for Cuff! Flames in a battle with the Cowboys. #RiseWithUs https://t.co/bx9Eafbgd4

Despite that effort and Cuffee hitting from deep, the Flames lost their lead in the second half because of an inability to take care of the ball.

They struggled to handle the Cowboys' overall athleticism against the full-court press and finished with 18 turnovers. Liberty failed to string together consistent offensive possessions, and an inability to protect the ball in key moments helped create transition opportunities for Oklahoma State.

Cuffee did what he could to keep it close, and future Cowboys opponents will likely study the Flames' defensive strategy against Cunningham.

Still, the turnovers ended any upset chances.


What's Next? 

The Cowboys will face the 12th-seeded Oregon State Beavers in Sunday's second-round clash after the Pac-12 representative upset the fifth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.