Freshman Cunningham good as advertised, seizes moment vs. Hogs

Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham (2) shoots over Arkansas forward Connor Vanover (23) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham showed the Arkansas Razorbacks why he’s projected to be an NBA Draft lottery pick — and possibly No. 1 overall.

Cunningham, a 6-8 point guard who missed the previous two games because of positive covid-19 tests within his team, rallied the Cowboys to an 81-77 victory on Saturday in a Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup in Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.

After Arkansas (13-5) took a 69-64 lead with 5:58 left on Justin Smith’s layup, Cunningham scored 11 of Oklahoma State’s last 17 points, including the basket that put them ahead for good and free throws that clinched the victory.

“He kind of took over for them at the end of the game,” said Smith, a senior forward who led the Razorbacks with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. “We couldn’t really stop him or get enough stops.

“They put the ball in his hands and he made plays. That’s what he’s there to do.”

Cunningham didn’t start for the first time in the 13 games in which he’s played, but he finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in 31 minutes. He hit 7 of 13 shots — including 2 of 5 three-pointers — and 5 of 5 free throws.

“I thought he played 31 great minutes,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “He hadn’t played in two games, and unfortunately we get him on the night he comes back.

“And he’s a phenomenal player. Cunningham is really, really, really, really special.”

Cunningham started the Cowboys’ comeback with a three-point play to cut the Razorbacks’ lead to 69-67. He put Oklahoma State (11-4) ahead 79-77 on a jumper with 21 seconds left.

“You can tell that the confidence in his scoring mindset has definitely come a long way,” Cowboys Coach Mike Boynton said. “He was always more of a pass-first, get other guys involved.

“And part of the knock on him was can he take over as a scorer? 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.”

After an Arkansas timeout with 13.2 seconds left, Connor Vanover missed a three-pointer from the top of the key that would have put the Razorbacks ahead. Vanover, a 7-3 sophomore, hit a three-pointer earlier in the game, finished 1 of 4, and is 17 of 56 on the season.

“I thought he had a good look,” Musselman said. “We knew that they would be draped over some of our other guys and their centers tried to clog the lane up a little bit.

“Obviously against a zone you can’t dictate the shot as well as you can against a man-to-man. You know we got a look with a guy who’s a pretty good shooter for us.”

Smith said Vanover had a great look on the final shot.

“He was wide open, he’s a good shooter, and we’ll take that any day of the week,” Smith said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t fall.

“That wasn’t how we drew it up, but that’s kind of what the defense gave us, and we’ll take that shot any time. I think they doubled JD [Notae] in the top corner, so he got rid of it, made a good play, got Connor the ball, and Connor had a good shot and it just didn’t go down for us.”

Cunningham got the rebound, was fouled by Davonte Davis with three seconds left and hit both free throws to make it a four-point margin.

For good measure, Cunningham then intercepted Smith’s inbounds pass at half court to end the game.

“I kind of gravitate to the ball, especially in big moments,” Cunningham said of his play in the final minutes. “I kind of want to assert myself more, and my team, they do a really good job of finding me and making sure I’m in the right spot.

“All credit to them. They make sure that I’m comfortable and make sure that I’m allowed to do what I do.”

Arkansas freshman guard Moses Moody — who was Cunningham’s teammate and roommate at Montverde (Fla.) Academy the previous two years — scored 17 points.

Notae scored 13 points and Davis — a freshman guard who had been committed to Oklahoma State before signing with Arkansas — had 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals.

Kalib Boone, a 6-9 sophomore, had 16 points and 12 rebounds for Oklahoma State, including 6 offensive boards.

“I thought Boone was a guy that really hurt us,” Musselman said. “That was the one guy in particular I thought rose to the occasion for them. He got six offensive rebounds. You just can’t have that with one guy.”

Sophomore guard Avery Anderson had 13 points and freshman forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, a 6-7 freshman, had 11 points and 6 rebounds.

Arkansas took its first lead, 45-43, on Vanover’s jump shot with 16:55 left.

From there, the game had 11 ties and five more lead changes.

“I think we started getting some defensive stops,” Musselman said of what Arkansas did to build its five-point lead late in the game. “I thought we got them off the offensive boards for a short spurt there. I thought our effort was there.”

The Razorbacks, who have won three consecutive SEC games, return to conference play against Mississippi State on Tuesday night in Walton Arena.

“We’ve got to turn the page on this and get ready for Mississippi State,” Musselman said. “We have to re-group for sure.”