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Cade Cunningham forced a steal, flipping the ball back to a teammate, then calling to get it right back.
He buried a three and unleashed a roar.
Oklahoma State was roaring, too.
Once down by so many a blowout alert had been issued, the Cowboys had cut the lead Sunday night to just one possession. You wondered if the roof on the famed Hinkle Fieldhouse would hold even though the Cowboy faithful were small in number.
In that moment, it felt like OSU was going to ride Cunningham, no matter the outcome. Win. Lose. Whatever. It was going to put the game in the hands of arguably the best player in the country.
But over the next two minutes, Cunningham didn’t even touch the ball.
On a night the Cowboys’ offense was abysmal — they clanked 47 shots and 12 free throws — Cunningham gave them a chance. He caught fire like he has so many times this season. He seemed poised to carry them to the unlikeliest of comebacks, not just in the NCAA Tournament but in the college basketball annals.
What stopped him?
His own team.
Or his own unselfishness.
“I have trust in my guys,” Cunningham said. “I know they can make plays. I don’t worry whenever I’m not touching it as long as we’re getting a good shot.”
Good shots, sure. But in those moments, Oklahoma State needed great shots.
It needed Cunningham.
Cunningham didn’t throw anyone under the bus, and frankly, go look at the three Cowboy possessions after his steal and three pulled them to within 70-67 with 3:39 remaining, and the shot selection isn’t terrible. Neither is the ball movement.
The first possession came after a rebound by Avery Anderson III, who pushed the ball and missed a contested shot in transition. Then after an Oregon State make, Anderson drove to the basket and missed a shot bordering on wild. Keylan Boone’s rebounded the miss and extended the possession, but it ended after he missed a three.
On that trip down the court, Anderson, Boone, Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe touched the ball.
The only Cowboy who didn’t?
The next OSU possession included a couple of missed free throws by Moncrieffe and a missed three by Anderson.
Even though Cunningham got his hands back on the ball the next time the Cowboys crossed half court, the Beavers had extended their lead back to seven points by then. Momentum had slipped through OSU’s fingers.
Cowboy coach Mike Boynton blamed a few factors.
“We were being pretty aggressive in our press, and we got too aggressive a couple times and fouled,” he said. “That stymied our rhythm getting out in transition.
“And then they did a pretty good job of trying to get to (Cunningham) a little earlier and force him to play against two guys. In that situation, he is who he is; he’s always gonna try to make the right play. He made a couple really good drive-and-kick reads, and the shots didn’t fall.
“Sometimes, that happens.”
But here’s what is hard to fathom — after the Cowboys had cut the lead to three by scoring six points in roughly 10 seconds, they went scoreless for 3:15. They didn’t score again until Cunningham hit three free throws with 24.3 seconds left.
They were outscored 10-3 down the stretch.
It’s befuddling. It’s mystifying. But it’s also maddening — and it should be most maddening to the Cowboys themselves.
They had a team good enough to make the Final Four, and the road only improved in their regional after No. 1 seed Illinois and No. 3 seed West Virginia got bounced earlier Sunday. With great athleticism and supreme toughness and yes, a generational talent, OSU had a chance to turn a special season into something truly magical.
But now with Cunningham likely headed to the NBA — he was noncommittal after the game even though he sounded like someone leaving for the pros — the Cowboys will be left to wonder what might have been.
Maybe Cunningham running the show isn’t the right answer all the time. Frankly, Isaac Likekele changed the game Friday by playing point, and much of the game Sunday, Anderson’s speed at the point was problematic for the Beavers. But the final three minutes of a win-or-go-home game in the NCAA Tournament is different. That's when you need a hero, and Cunningham is more than capable.
If you have the best player in college basketball, you put the ball in his hands and let the chips fall where they may. Let him create the shots. Let him distribute the ball.
Let him decide the season.
Had the Cowboys done that, the outcome couldn’t have been any worse than it was. Instead, they now head into the offseason wondering if they really, truly gave themselves the best opportunity Sunday night.
“I feel like I shot the shots I needed to shoot,” Cunningham insisted. “I was always taught — shoot until the clip is empty. I feel like I did that.”
No more bullets in the chamber? I’m not so sure. I suspect he’s being protective of teammates and coaches, and that’s fine.
But the truth is, Cade Cunningham needed to at least touch the ball when the momentum had swung to the Cowboys, when the Beavers were on the ropes, when the game was decided.
And it was decided — just not the way OSU wanted.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham needed ball late vs. Oregon State