STILLWATER, Okla. — Isaac Likekele didn’t even look back as the ball swished down the net, rushing stride for stride with his opponent.
Likekele had put the game on ice with his two free throws, but his defense in the final seconds against Texas’ Courtney Ramey at the top of the key earned Oklahoma State the win.
OSU beat the Longhorns 61-58 inside Gallagher-Iba Arena on Tuesday night as the Cowboys rustled up their first Big 12 Conference victory.
“Damn. Winning is hard,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “That’s what I think of this game.”
In a season where youth has defined this team and the experience level actually dropping with the team’s lone senior – graduate transfer Mike Cunningham – leaving the program hours before tipoff, it was fitting a freshman clinched the win.
Likekele’s frenetic style on defense caused Ramey to lose the ball before picking it up and clanking a 3-point heave. As the two freshmen went at it, Likekele looked like the better first-year player in what was a long night for Ramey with zero points and four fouls.
“I knew (Likekele) was going to make them when he went up to the line,” OSU junior forward Cameron McGriff said. “He is a pretty confident kid, especially as a freshman. He is as confident as it comes and he was meant for that stage.”
Likekele’s play on both sides of the court in the final minute stopped what had been a Longhorn stampede of points in a second half owned by the men in burnt orange.
The Cowboys (7-8 overall, 1-2 Big 12) had allowed a double-digit lead set up mostly by Lindy Waters to evaporate in the middle of the second half. For seven minutes, OSU couldn’t do anything right as Texas scored at will and pulled within six points.
Then Waters hit his lone bucket of the second half, a contested 3-pointer that made him 5 of 5 on the day, a career first for the junior swingman. As with Likekele, the intensity didn’t stop on offense, though, as McGriff smacked a shot from Matt Coleman III out of the air.
“Whether I’m on or Cam is on, it is one play at a time,” Waters said. “Whoever wants to make the play will make it.”
Waters finished with a game-high 19 points and nine rebounds with McGriff and guard Michael Weathers joining him in double digits with 12 and 10 points apiece.
The sequence gave the Cowboys life and even though the Longhorns (10-5, 2-1) stormed back to within one before Likekele’s free throws, it gave OSU enough oomph to get across the finish line.
In a matchup between two defensive-minded teams, OSU came out swinging on offense to start the game and try to get the crowd of 6,486 behind it. The fast start was something Boynton said the Cowboys needed for their confidence after such an uneven start to their season through a tough schedule.
“I set this team up for failure in a lot of ways,” Boynton said. “First by putting together a really, really young team and scheduling a schedule that is made for a pretty veteran team. This is a schedule you put together when you feel like you can make a run to the Final Four, but I am pretty ambitious as a person.”
The Cowboys would keep up hot shooting in the first half, holding a 17-point lead at the break. Texas coach Shaka Smart said he didn’t understand why his team came out so flat despite being unbeaten in league play heading into the game. One of his players – Dylan Osetkowski – thought it was because the Longhorns overlooked the last place Cowboys.
“If our guys did take them lightly, then it is really, really disappointing,” Smart said. “We talked about for three days how dangerous they are and how hungry they are and how hard they were going to play. We needed to be the best version of us, regardless of who we were playing and obviously, in the first half, we were nowhere near that.”
Texas came out playing with urgency on defense in the second half, forcing OSU to commit mistakes that resulted in turnovers. The combination of the press defense and the Cowboys’ inability to score allowed the Longhorns to come back with a chance to win.
Led By Kerwin Roach with 18 points and Jaxson Hayes with 13, Texas looked to keep the Cowboys winless in conference play before Waters and McGriff kickstarted OSU’s heart.
“They got more conscious and tried to take (Waters) out,” Boynton said. “He was a guy who got going pretty good early and we need him to. He is a guy that teams will key on even more and we need to continue to get him shots because he is a guy who can make baskets in a lot of different ways.”
When it came down to Likekele making the free throws, Boynton had no doubt in his mind. He knew the guard from Arlington, Texas, would be resilient in his mind since he showed it with his physical toughness. Likekele went to the floor hard and favored his left leg after a play earlier in the contest, but moments later he was back out. Free throws were nothing to him.
“I literally didn’t say a word to Ice during the timeout,” Boynton said.
With the Cowboys breaking through and earning a notch in the win column, they head to West Virginia on Saturday for an 11 a.m. tilt with the Mountaineers. Waters said despite OSU’s record, he feels the team is going the right way and the Texas win will go a long way.
“I don’t really look at our record at all,” Waters said. “I come out and play every game the same way and play hard and live with the results.
“… (I think) we’re going up. Going up a staircase step by step. You don’t want to skip a step, because then you might slip and fall down so you go simple one step at a time. I think we’re in the right direction.”