By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — After helping Oklahoma State finally get back into the Top 25 for the first time in almost a year, Tegan Cunningham summed up her feelings in two words: “About time.”
But just as the No. 23 Cowgirls are getting recognized for their strong start, the hard work is only about to begin.
Andrea Riley had 26 points and 11 assists, freshman Lakyn Garrison added a career-high 16 points and Oklahoma State beat Sam Houston State 98-60 Monday night to head into Big 12 play on an eight-game winning streak.
“It’s like, ‘Finally, we made it’ but we don’t want to be satisfied,” Riley said. “It feels good to be back in the Top 25 because we want to be a part of a listing of the best teams in the nation. We want to show everybody that we can keep that ranking and continue to climb up.”
The challenge against the Bearkats (3-8) was to stay sharp even with No. 5 Baylor looming next on the schedule, and the Cowgirls took control from the start by opening with a 15-1 run. Sam Houston State missed its first four shots and committed seven turnovers in the first 5 minutes.
It was the second straight game the Cowgirls jumped out to a big lead early, after scoring the first 28 points and leading 40-2 in a rout of Texas-Pan American two days earlier.
“We talk so much about the Big 12 and the 16 games coming up and how everything’s got to be up right now because of the level of our league that I was worried about this one tonight,” coach Kurt Budke said.
The Cowgirls (12-2) returned to the Top 25 for the first time since last January, when they followed a run to the round of 16 in the 2008 NCAA tournament with a 4-12 record in the mighty Big 12. The league has seven teams in the Top 25 and five ranked No. 15 or higher.
“I think that everybody really held their own in preseason, I think that we really worked hard and I think that we have more wins to come,” Riley said.
Brittany Brooks had 14 points and Chanice Smith scored 13 to lead the Bearkats, who are 0-5 on a current six-game road trip. Sam Houston State, which is averaging 21 turnovers per game, finished with 24 after the brutal start.
Cunningham scored 21 and freshman Precious Robinson had 10 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass, for Oklahoma State.
The two are part of a new cast of characters surrounding Riley, a former second-team All-American, since that 2008 run — the deepest in school history.
Cunningham has raised her scoring average by seven points to 17.8 per game in her second season after transferring from a Seward County and Garrison is starting to provide a viable third scoring threat.
“She’s really come on. She’s almost to the point now where I think she’s going to get double figures every night,” Budke said. “Of course, that’s a lot tougher once we get into the league.
“Part of her development is how great Andrea Riley is passing the basketball. She’s sharing the basketball better than she ever has in her career.”
Everyone was clicking during a 17-4 run for OSU after the Bearkats connected on three straight 3-pointers following a 2-for-17 start. Garrison hit a pair of 3s, Riley drove for a layup and Cunningham put Oklahoma State ahead 76-44 with a layup off a no-look, over-the-shoulder assist from Riley on the fast break.
Riley had four assists in all during the spurt.
“I think we’re a lot closer this year than we were last year and we all sort of understand how each other plays now,” Cunningham said.
The victory was the Cowgirls’ 42nd straight in nonconference play at Gallagher-Iba Arena, but now the test really starts. After facing Baylor, the Cowgirls play at No. 24 Kansas as the gauntlet of Big 12 play begins.
Oklahoma State’s only two losses were at Ohio State (currently No. 6) and in double overtime at Michigan State (currently No. 19).
“We’re always going to be around that Top 25,” Budke said, noting that OSU is in the rankings for the fourth straight season — after an 11-year drought. “We’re a dangerous team and you better prepare for us every night. I think we have that kind of respect around the country.”