LUBBOCK, Texas — The game swung back and forth, teetering for each team to claim.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
First, it looked as though Texas Tech was in control. Then Kansas State took command. Suddenly, everything was up for grabs again. Eventually, the dramatic back-and-forth battle came down to a final play.
It was familiar for the Wildcats. They had been in that situation often this season, finding ways to win at home and discovering ways to lose on the road.
But things unfolded differently on Tuesday at United Spirit Arena. The Wildcats emerged with a 60-56 victory when the metaphorical dust settled, ending a six-game road skid that dated back to early January.
“We had some balls bounce our way at the end of the game tonight,” said K-State senior guard Will Spradling, who scored 10 points. “In other games at the end we have had some balls bounce the other team’s way. We were kind of due for one.”
Perhaps that is true. K-State’s only other road win came at bottom feeder TCU at the beginning of conference play. Given how close its losses were at Texas, Baylor and Iowa State, the law of averages was bound to favor the Wildcats at some point.
But there was more to it this ending than good fortune.
Freshman forward Wesley Iwundu made the play of the game with 55.1 seconds remaining, converting a traditional three-point play by driving to the basket and hitting an off-balance shot over Texas Tech guard Dusty Hannahs. He was called for a blocking foul and Iwundu made the ensuing free throw to give K-State a 57-56 lead.
Then the Wildcats held strong on the Red Raiders’ final two possessions, forcing a missed three and a turnover. Freshman guard Marcus Foster, who scored a game-high 17 points, came away with the key steal when Robert Turner foolishly dribbled into the corner with 8 seconds remaining. Foster then passed the ball up court, allowing K-State to run out the clock until Iwundu hit an insurance layup with 1 second to go.
“They kept fighting,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “They didn’t give in. We didn’t score a field goal for nine minutes. You can easily just give in, but we didn’t. That was, in the huddle, what we kept saying. ‘Come on, just keep fighting. Good things will happen.’ ”
K-State, 19-9 and 9-6 in the Big 12, rose to the occasion in front 12,224 vocal fans. Unlike in previous seasons, Texas Tech, 13-15 and 5-10, has become a difficult team to beat in Lubbock. And its home arena never felt more formidable than Tuesday. The Red Raiders lured a Big 12 record 6,086 students to the game with the promise of free food, giveaways and noisemakers.
They created the loudest road environment K-State has encountered since Allen Fieldhouse and Hilton Coliseum.
“The place was energized,” Weber said. “We played here last year in front of a couple thousand people. You could hear each other talk. Tonight you had students there and a lot of noise.”
That helped Texas Tech take a 26-25 halftime lead and go up by as many as nine points in the second half. When Jaye Crockett made a layup to give Texas Tech a 42-34 advantage with 9:37 remaining, K-State looked doomed.
Then the game began to teeter.
Everything started going K-State’s way when Jordan Tolbert fouled Iwundu while going up for layup on the following possession. Officials hit Tolbert with a flagrant-one foul, awarding K-State two free throws and the ball.
The Wildcats took advantage with Iwundu making both free throws and Foster drilling a three. K-State was back within three points and had all kinds of momentum.
“I felt really confident going to the free-throw line,” Iwundu said. “After I hit those two, I felt the game would change.”
It did, fueling a 20-5 run that featured a four-point play from Foster, an and-one layup from Nino Williams and a corner three from Spradling. Five minutes later, K-State was on top 54-47.
“I felt we deserved them plays,” Foster said. “We played so hard, and when you play hard you end up getting the ball to bounce your way. … Good things are going to happen to you.”
Still, there was more teetering on the way.
In the next two minutes, Spradling lost back-to-back turnovers against a full-court press and Williams was called for a flagrant-one foul against Tolbert. Just like that, it was tied at 54 with 2:49 remaining. K-State needed all the resolve it could muster.
“We just kept coming at them and kept playing hard,” Spradling said. “That is something we have had a problem with on the road. We have moments where we stop playing hard and they will make runs. Tonight they made runs, but during those runs we were still really playing hard and we made runs right back at them.”
With the win, K-State will head into its final three games — against Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor — with some optimism.
That’s good news for Weber. He said the Wildcats vented with one another for hours leading up to Tuesday’s game. He recalls junior forward Thomas Gipson saying “we are having a horrible year.”
Weber tried pointing out that K-State was approaching 20 victories and a likely spot in the NCAA Tournament, but everyone seemed focused on the road losing streak. Maybe now that can change.
“A lot of good things can happen,” Weber said. “We have done a lot of talking and prodding and a lot of motivational things. Hopefully this game will get us over the hump a little bit.”