Kansas State appears on its way back to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats may have finally moved themselves off the bubble and safely into the bracket by defeating Baylor 70-64 in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday at Sprint Center.
It was a big victory that few other teams fighting for the postseason have been able to match. It was also a big victory that could go a long way toward boosting Bruce Weber’s odds of returning for a sixth season as coach at K-State.
“That’s a big-time win,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “We knew what that win meant for us and we went out and played like it. That was the best 40 minutes of basketball we have had this year. Everyone contributed to it.”
Indeed, No. 6 seed K-State (20-12) played inspired basketball with plenty on the line against No. 3 seed Baylor (25-7) and advanced to the tournament’s semifinals for the first time since 2013. It will face No. 2 seed West Virginia at about 8:30 p.m. on Friday.
The Wildcats didn’t always look sharp, particularly early on offense, but that didn’t show on the scoreboard. This is what happens when K-State plays hard and defends.
“Effort, that’s what we talked about,” Weber said. “Play with determination. I told them before the game ... coaches use (determination) all the time. You can look it up in the dictionary, they give you some long definition of what it is. But when you feel it and you see it. They had it against TCU, Texas Tech and they had it against Baylor the first time and we had it tonight.
“That determination, that effort, playing hard, getting on the floor, fighting and scraping for everything. That’s what I really appreciate.”
K-State used that mixture of energy and determination to surge ahead in the second half behind key plays from Barry Brown, D.J. Johnson and Kamau Stokes.
“They made the plays. They earned it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I really credit Kansas State for playing a really good game and really offensively executing well.”
Brown may have made the biggest shot of the night, sinking a three-pointer from the corner while being fouled and then draining the ensuing free throw to put K-State on top 44-37 midway through the second half. Four-point plays are rare, and the Wildcats’ bench reacted as such when the shots splashed through the net.
The play was an exclamation mark on an impressive overall effort from Brown, who snapped out of a shooting slump to score 21 points. Johnson cursed in astonishment when he was told Brown went 4 for 4 from behind the arc.
“It came from my teammates,” Brown said. “We ran a couple of plays, and some of it was just (amazing) like the and-one three. Wes was able to find me. But I credit my teammates for getting me open, and I had to reward them by making the shots.”
His strong play seemed to inspire teammates.
Johnson came through with several tough layups in the paint on his way to 13 points and seven rebounds. And Stokes converted an off-balance runner to keep the Bears at arm’s length as they tried to fight back from an 11-point deficit.
“It was one of those things where you be aggressive and a play comes out of it,” Stokes said. “It felt great to see the shot go down.”
Of course, there was no shortage of clutch plays from K-State in this one. Backup point guard Carlbe Ervin threw down an astonishing driving dunk in the second half and backup forward Isaiah Maurice came off the bench to score eight points. They helped make up for a lack of production from Dean Wade, who was held scoreless.
The first half was a defensive battle that ended in a 25-25 tie, but K-State broke free in the final 20 minutes.
Few saw this coming two weeks ago when the Wildcats lost 81-51 at Oklahoma. They dropped to 17-12 and appeared destined for the NIT. Debates raged about Weber’s job security. Yet, the team found a way to block out those distractions and go on a winning streak with its back against the wall.
“The thing that sparked the turnaround was whether we wanted it or not,” Stokes said. “We always asked each other, how bad do you want to get into the NCAA Tournament? How bad do you want to win the Big 12 Tournament? Clearly, we want those things pretty bad.”
The Wildcats entered Thursday on the bubble, but they exited it feeling like they will hear their names on Selection Sunday.
“I am liking our chances right now,” Iwundu said. “Everyone, all the ‘bracketologists,’ are going to have their own opinions, but I like our chances. Then again, if we win this tournament there is no doubt. That is our goal right now, to win the Big 12 Tournament.”
That remains a possibility after K-State landed a victory that could propel it to bigger things, including its first trip to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.
“Couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” Weber said. “They fought through adversity, fought through injuries. They’ve stayed coach-able. They’ve stayed together and gone on just a great run here.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett