There is a lot of excitement around this year’s class of newcomers on the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team, but it’s the returning starting five that carried the Cowboys to a season-opening win Wednesday night.

There was a decent-sized crowd, that included recruit Bryce Thompson and other former notable OSU stars, inside Gallagher-Iba Arena for the first official game of the season. They were there to see the returning players and a large, talented class of freshmen.

But, when the Cowboys needed a spark in the second half, third-year coach Mike Boynton went to his starting five. They led the Cowboys to an ugly 80-75 win over Oral Roberts.

The season-opener was still a win. That’s something the Cowboys couldn’t say last year when they fell on the road to Charlotte.

“First, I want to give credit to Oral Roberts – they are a really good team,” Boynton said. “… I could see them being very competitive no matter what the competition level is. They’ve got good depth, some size, good shooters and Coach (Paul) Mills has done a good job of establishing an identity. I’ll say this about our team, we lost this game last year similarly in terms of going to a place, getting a big lead, not being able to hold on and not making plays down the stretch to win. We obviously are making progress, but we still have a ways to go in terms of sustaining our competitive focus.”

Sophomore Isaac Likekele said the Cowboys (1-0) had a chance to put the game away, but made too many mistakes.

“Credit to them and their game plan, but we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Likekele said. “I don’t want to discredit them at all, but it’s a lot of things we did ourselves that changed it from a 14-point game and going up 20 to only being up six. We had mental breakdowns that we’ve got to clean up ourselves.”

Despite the sloppy win, one highlight was sophomore forward Yor Anei. He almost earned a triple-double in the first game of his second season. Anei scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked eight shots. It was his second double-double of his career.

Yet, it was the blocked shots that turned heads throughout the night, and in the postgame press conference.

“He’s a game changer,” Boynton said. “He’s certainly a luxury to have in there, because sometimes you’re going to have breakdowns on the defensive end. To have a guy there, who can – if nothing else – make the other team think twice about how aggressive they’re going to drive the ball to the basket and how much they’re going to throw the ball inside, it’s a huge bonus for us.”

The starting five for OSU scored all but 16 points. Only two bench players contributed to the Cowboys’ scoring.

Freshman Keylan Boone scored 11 points on 3 of 5 shooting from the 3-point range. Fellow freshman Avery Anderson added five points.

However, it was the five starters who led the Cowboys to the win. Four of them scored in double figures with Likekele and senior Lindy Waters leading the way with 18 and 15 points, respectively.

It was the starters who helped end a long field goal drought during the middle of the second half. Buckets by Likekele and Waters, followed by a 3-pointer from senior Thomas Dziagwa put the Cowboys up 14 points.

A minute later, senior Cameron McGriff made two free throws to put OSU up 16 points for its biggest lead of the contest. McGriff didn’t make a field goal on the night, but he sank 10 foul shots.

“Cam never really got in a rhythm offensively,” Boynton said. “But I’m proud he showed he could still impact the game. You get double digits without making a basket – that’s a guy knowing that I’ve got to find a way to impact it in other ways. Kudos to him, because that’s not what he would have done prior.”

After OSU built the 16-point advantage, ORU (0-1) trimmed the lead to one point in less than seven minutes. A 6-0 run, which ended with an ORU jumper, cut the lead to 68-67 with 2 minutes and 22 seconds remaining.

Before the game became a back-and-forth foul-shooting contest, it was Likekele and fellow sophomore Anei who made buckets to keep the Cowboys on top. ORU graduate transfer Ty Lazenby, a Glencoe High graduate, had a chance to give the Golden Eagles a lead with a 3-pointer but missed it.

During the final 90 seconds, OSU made 8 of 10 free throws to clinch the narrow victory.

“I thought we made some really good plays,” Boynton said. “I just told our team this – I’m sure our fans won’t love to see us play these possession games over the next two months, but I want as many of these, if we’re going to win them, as we can have before the calendar turns because it’s very rare that you see teams runaway from teams once the conference starts.”

The Cowboys are back in action at 2 p.m. Saturday when they host UMKC in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

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