Kansas State had an opportunity to end all doubt.
Make a shot at the buzzer against West Virginia and the Wildcats would have been headed to the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament and then, undoubtedly, the NCAA Tournament. It was all within their reach.
But things didn’t turn out that way. A disastrous final possession ended with Kamau Stokes missing a well-defended prayer from three-point range and West Virginia celebrating a 51-50 come-from-behind victory on Friday night at Sprint Center.
“It’s a heart-breaker,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “For us and our kids.”
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K-State sophomore forward Dean Wade agreed.
“We fought so hard and left it all on the court, and it just slipped through our fingers at the very end,” Wade said. “It stinks. It’s a terrible feeling.”
K-State must now wait until Sunday to learn its postseason fate.
The Wildcats (20-13) seemed to put themselves in good shape for an at-large berth by finishing sixth in the conference standings and then beating Baylor in the quarterfinals of the tournament. Most experts project them to make the field of 68, but there are no guarantees.
“We have shown a lot. I would be very surprised if we wasn’t in,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “In a league like this it would be very surprising if we wasn’t in. We did a lot of things in this league, competed with a lot of guys, showed that we could play with the best. We feel good about our chances, but at the end of the day it comes down to the committee.”
For now, the only K-State dream that has been dashed is that of a Big 12 Tournament championship.
It came to a bitter end after it appeared the Wildcats were destined for victory and their first trip to the tournament’s final since 2013. But they couldn’t protect a 12-point lead and let things slip away with a series of mistakes in the final minute against the Mountaineers (26-7).
The most glaring gaffe occurred on the final possession. West Virginia had just pulled ahead on a free throw from Esa Ahmad, leaving K-State with 20.2 seconds to attempt a potential go-ahead shot. There was more than enough time to attack the basket and make something happen. Even with a quick miss, the Wildcats could have fouled and set themselves up for another game-winner. It’s what Weber wanted.
Instead, they froze after getting the ball across midcourt and called timeout with 10.4 seconds on the clock.
K-State then got the ball to Stokes in the backcourt, and asked D.J. Johnson and Wade to set a double screen for him as Stokes moved toward the basket. That’s where things went wrong. Johnson and Wade failed to block any defenders and Stokes ended up trapped in a double team well behind the three-point line.
From there, he faced defended passes to Johnson inside and Iwundu on the wing. Barry Brown cut behind Stokes for a possible deep three-pointer of his own, but Stokes opted to take the shot himself. It missed long.
“We talked about D.J. driving and then Dean popping and having Wes on that weak side,” Weber said. “They did a good job jamming it up. Kam is a little smaller ... I wish he would have went off a little stronger, a little quicker, and make them make a call down the stretch.”
Stokes didn’t have much to say.
“West Virginia played good defense,” Stokes said. “I’m not sure anything went wrong, they just played really good defense.”
It was a disappointing loss for K-State, which led 25-16 at halftime and 32-20 early in the second half.
Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense, and that was certainly the case for the Wildcats when they jumped to those leads. Weber likes to say you beat West Virginia and their famous full-court defense by getting stops. The more baskets you prevent, the less opportunities they have to set up their defense. That strategy worked to perfection in the first 20 minutes, as West Virginia made 6 of their first 32 shots (18.8 percent).
But the Mountaineers turned things up in the second half and chipped away at the deficit until they won.
“I told them at halftime, ‘We’ve just got to find ways to score,’ ” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We’ve got to get more shots. Our whole thing is by either turning people over or rebounding the ball. We’ve got to get more shots than what our opposition does.”
West Virginia was the more aggressive team in the second half, finally catching K-State at 50-50 with 1:45 remaining on a corner three from Tarik Phillip.
Then it was aided by a favorable foul call that went against Johnson as he tried to snare a rebound on the Mountaineers’ final possession. Johnson and Ahmad fought for the ball and it ended up in the hands of Iwundu, but the foul went against Johnson and Ahmad went to the line.
“A missed call,” Johnson said. “It was a jump-ball pretty much. I should have boxed him out. He didn’t box me out. I didn’t box him out. We both went up for the ball and we both got a hand on it, but they called a foul on me.”
Ahmad led West Virginia with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Phillip added 13. Iwundu was K-State’s top player, scoring 13 points. Stokes added 10, and Barry Brown had nine.
It was almost enough to get the Wildcats to the Big 12 Tournament finals, but they needed a little more, particularly at the end.
“It’s hard to lose a game like that,” Johnson said, “especially when they don’t beat us. We really beat ourselves.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett