Because they were playing in a game that started at 9:30 a.m. back home, it was perhaps understandable that the Kansas State Wildcats might be a bit sluggish Thursday in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
But the Wildcats wound up hitting the snooze button a few times too often and were unable to overcome Charlotte in a 68-61 loss.
The Wildcats, 2-2, fell behind 20-8 midway through the first half and struggled with interior foul trouble. And though they battled back to tie the game 30-30 at halftime, they quickly fell behind by six in the second half and trailed the rest of the way.
“Emotionally we have to be ready to start the game,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “And it can’t be fake emotion. It has to be real. We didn’t play very well at the start of the game and at the start of the second half. Both times we fought back, but we could never really get over the hump.”
Despite the slow starts, the Wildcats still had a shot to win late in the game, when an 8-2 run cut a nine-point deficit down to 56-53 with 3:23 remaining.
But Charlotte guard Denzel Ingram responded by sinking a three-pointer, followed moments later by a Terrence Williams layup. And just like that, the 49ers led 61-53 with 2:09 to play.
“They made the plays when it counted and we didn’t,” Weber said. “They didn’t make many threes (four of 15), but when they did, they were daggers.”
Charlotte, 3-1, outrebounded Kansas State 46-34 and held the Wildcats to 31-percent shooting in the second half, including two of 15 from three-point range. Offensively, the 49ers had five players score in double figures, led by Mike Thorne Jr. (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Willie Clayton (10 and 10).
“That was a great team effort. Capital letters T-E-A-M,” Charlotte coach Alan Major said. “Everybody who played chipped in.”
The Wildcats were undersized for much of the game because of foul trouble to D.J. Johnson and Thomas Gipson. Johnson picked up his second foul three minutes into the game and his fourth with still 13:14 to play. And though he never fouled out, Johnson finished with no points and five rebounds. Gipson, meanwhile, was whistled for five fouls in only eight minutes of playing time, finishing with two points and no boards.
“Obviously the boards were the big difference maker, and the points in the paint,” Weber said. “We can’t get little ticky-tack fouls, because we need our big guys on the court. We had a lot of foul trouble, and somehow we have to see if we can change that.”
Kansas State will play Georgetown at 11 a.m. Friday in the losers’ bracket. The Hoyas were upset by Northeastern 63-56 Thursday.
If nothing else, the Wildcats hope that their first-round performance will serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the tournament and season.
“From a game like that you learn that you have to come out ready,” said Nigel Johnson, who led the Wildcats with 14 points and six rebounds. “You can’t wait and try to warm up after the game’s started. You have to come out ready to play, or you get down early like we did.”