Everything went right for the Horned Frogs through the first 16 or so minutes of their matchup with Oklahoma State in Stillwater Wednesday evening.
Picking up right where they left off from Saturday’s beat down of Texas A&M, the Horned Frogs were red-hot from outside, getting the ball to Kevin Samuel inside, and rotating well on defense as they built a lead of as many as 13 points.
But it’s hard to keep a good team down, and even harder to keep a great player down, and as the Pokes turned up the defense the TCU offense fell to pieces.
Despite getting a B game (at best) from Cade Cunningham, the Cowboys hung in through the TCU run, eventually taking the lead for good midway through the second half as the Frogs went through a string of turnovers that saw them give the ball away in five out of six possessions at one point.
They had absolutely no business winning this ball game.
But that’s the fun thing about college basketball: on any given night, a player can be great, and for the Horned Frogs Wednesday, RJ Nembhard was that dude.
Going toe for toe and shot for shot with likely lottery pick Cade Cunningham, RJ was the star Wednesday, pouring in 21 points on 9-15 shooting, draining three of his five attempts from behind the arc, collecting four rebounds and dishing four assists. After talking about how much he was looking forward to his chance to lock up with Cunningham, RJ delivered Wednesday, but was as happy to come away with the win as he was to outshine the top prospect. “When the game got moved to ESPN, we definitely wanted to show people what kind of team we are,” Nembhard said. When asked if he was motivated to remind folks that he was a pretty good player in his own right, RJ responded, “oh for sure. But we also wanted to keep a cool head and remember that winning was the most important thing; if I had two points and we won the game, I would be just as happy.” Happy for the win, sure, but always willing to hit the game winner, too. “I love the big moments. My favorite player growing up was Kobe Bryant, so I try and have that ‘Mamba Mentality’. When the moment comes, I want to seize it.”
Cunningham didn’t do much of anything through the first 20 minutes, as Jamie Dixon employed a handful of different players to bother the 6’8” super star. Having watched the DFW native play AAU ball with Mike Miles “probably 30-40 times over the summer”, Dixon and his staff were very familiar with Cunningham as a person and player. After the game, he continued to compliment the freshman for his skill and his specialness, while also talking about what a great person he is and what a great family he comes from. But he also talked about what it means for his guys to match up with a player of that caliber. “They were excited playing him, especially when you factor in the familiarity. [It’s always a big deal] playing against highly ranked guy.” After starting the game just 1-9, Cunningham finished with 17 points, but he had to earn them, making just six field goals and hitting 5-8 from the charity stripe. He was 0-3 from deep but added eight rebounds and three assists on the night. Another TCU killer, Isaac Likekele was mostly quiet as well, scoring 10 points on 3-5 shooting with four free throws.
TCU, meanwhile, got a balanced attack. In addition to RJ’s 21, Kevin Samuel had one of his better offensive games of the season, scoring 18 points and pulling down eight boards. Though he missed a handful of easy ones near the rim, he was as big a part of the comeback as any player, going 2-2 from the stripe with just 1:22 remaining and the Frogs trailing by four. Those two makes were the culmination of a lot of hard work, according the Jamie Dixon. “It’s been a long journey. He’s worked so hard at it... Kevin is such a great kid, I’m so happy for him. It’s huge for us if he can just be a 50-60% guy from the free throw line.”
After being up by as many as 13 in the first half, TCU trailed by as many as eight in the second. In fact, that was the exact margin with 2:21 remaining as Rondel Walker drained a pair of free throws following a stretch that saw the Frogs turn it over eight times while scoring just three points. But over that final 2:21, TCU figured some things out, forcing two OSU turnovers while on a 9-0 scoring run themselves. RJ and Kevin poured in the final nine of the game, but there was no hero ball on display; on the final possession, all four guards touched the ball, all four had decent looks at a shot, but they waited until the right player got the right shot to pull the trigger, and it paid off. “I have a lot of confidence [in RJ]”, freshman Taryn Todd said. “He’s hit that shot many times before, I’m going give it to him every time.” Todd was a big part of the offense Wednesday, scoring 10 points, including a pair of three pointers, collecting four rebounds and dropping a pair of dimes. But he was also called to be a key player on defense, matched up with Cade Cunningham for the final seven seconds of a one point game. What was he thinking as he ran stride for stride with Cunningham down the floor? “I was thinking, he was going to take the shot. He’s that guy on their team, it’s up to me to make a good contest.” Contest he did, squaring Cunningham up and getting a little help from RJ on the backside to force the miss and give the Frogs a win.
There is plenty for TCU to work on before their next game, a home date with North Dakota State Tuesday. TCU turned it over 20 times Wednesday, leading to 27 Oklahoma State points, got out-rebounded 37-36, allowed 15 offensive rebounds and 15 second chance points. They let the Cowboys dominate the paint (50 points scored) and their bench dominate the game (nearly half of the scoring), and let OSU get out and run far too easily (18 fast break points). But at the end of the day, this young team got great games by a bunch of young players, saw their freshman point guard continue to show how special he is (Mike Miles had 16 points, two rebounds, and three assists and turned it over two fewer times than he did last time out) and overcame missing Francisco Farabello yet again and a rough night from PJ Fuller, who dealt with foul trouble for much of the game. But, at the end of the day, it’s a huge win for the Horned Frogs, who get to 1-1 in conference play and pick up a crucial one on the road. “It’s huge,” Nembhard said. “To stay together, stay locked in, not try and play hero ball... everyone came together to get stops, stayed mature, played at our own pace. Huge momentum booster to get a road win in conference.”
The Frogs will look to carry that momentum into Tuesday night, hoping to make it three in a row.