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Survive and advance: Oklahoma State holds off Liberty in first round, date set with Oregon State next

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NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament - First Round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Kalib Boone #22 of the Oklahoma Cowboys faces off with Blake Preston #32 of the Liberty Flames in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on March 19, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Josh Duplechian/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Oklahoma State just won its first NCAA Tournament game in 12 years.

Avery Anderson III and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe kept the Cowboys in it long enough for Cade Cunningham to get into a rhythm, and a second-half surge led OSU to a 69-60 win over Liberty. It was the first NCAA Tournament game for every Cowboy on the roster.

“None of our guys had been in this moment before, and for them to figure out a way to have success against a really good team is pretty special,” coach Mike Boynton said.

It wasn’t one of Cunningham’s best games, but he isn’t called a closer for no reason. Cunningham was held to one point in the first half, but the freshman superstar scored 14 in the second half, including nine of OSU’s last 11.

The dagger came when Cunningham hit a nasty pullup three over Liberty’s Elijah Cuffee, extending the Cowboy’s lead to nine with 1:43 to go. OSU did a masterful job of closing down the stretch in what was an otherwise sloppy game.

“It’s win or go home,” Anderson said. “We kept that in mind the whole game.”

The Cowboys looked out of their element in the first half. Sloppy turnovers, fouls and inconsistent offense plagued the Cowboys. Liberty held a lead for a majority of the half, and took a three-point lead into the break.

“The shots just weren’t falling,” Anderson said.

But it could’ve been much worse.

When nobody else was scoring, Anderson was putting in work. He scored 14 of the team’s 30 first half points, and without him, the Cowboys might have been in trouble. Anderson finished with a team-high 21 points.

“At that point we needed some scoring,” Anderson said. “Luckily, I have good teammates and they saw I got it going early, so they kept feeding me the ball.”

The offense wasn’t very good, but OSU’s defense was stellar from the jump. It forced Liberty into a season-high 18 turnovers and held the Flames below 40% from the field. Liberty’s slow tempo raised concerns coming in, but OSU adjusted and forced Liberty to play a different game in the second half.

Yet another reason why the Cowboys stayed in it.

“Our defense carried us at the end of the day,” Boynton said. “I thought we defended at a really high level. Our rotations and ability to disrupt their rhythm, making Darius McGhee inefficient was a big key today.”

Next up, the Cowboys will take on 12-seed Oregon State in the round of 32 on Sunday at 8:40 p.m. The Beavers are red-hot, having won seven of their last eight, including a PAC-12 Tournament championship and a convincing 70-56 win over 5-seed Tennessee.

“It feels good to win, but we’ve got a lot more in store,” Anderson said. “I’m ready to play the next game already.”