Kansas State coach Bruce Weber often says the Wildcats “need everyone” to play well in order to win difficult games.
A 77-61 loss to Oklahoma State on Monday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena illustrated that point.
Thomas Gipson and Wesley Iwundu played with enough grit and precision to give K-State a chance at an upset in a difficult road environment. But while they were scoring points and grabbing rebounds on their way to double-doubles, everyone else on the roster struggled in some way.
The Wildcats needed more against an opponent that received major contributions — and 73 points — from its starting lineup.
“They punched us,” Weber said, “and we slapped back.”
The most critical errors in the game revolved around senior guard Will Spradling.
Spradling picked up two fouls in the opening 5 minutes and spent the rest of the first half on the bench. With Spradling, an experienced shooter and leader of Weber’s motion offense on the floor, K-State held an early advantage. With him on the bench, Oklahoma State reeled off a 20-5 run and went into the locker room up 35-27.
The difference was obvious.
“He is the thing that keeps that team together,” said Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte, who scored a game-high 23 points. “He is the senior. He has started for four years. He is the leader on the court. When he isn’t on the floor you can tell they get undisciplined at times.”
Spradling’s two fouls were needless, and Weber was critical of him for committing them. It was Spradling’s second straight game with two early fouls.
But with the game spiraling out of control, might K-State have been better served putting him back in even if it meant risking a third foul before halftime?
“I feel like I am smart enough to (play through foul trouble)” Spradling said. “I don’t know. That’s the coach’s decision. I can’t say anything about that one.”
Weber said he would have considered using Spradling with two fouls had Oklahoma State pulled ahead by double-digits. But his main priority was saving him for the second half.
Regardless, the momentum Oklahoma State gained at the end of the first half helped it withstand a K-State comeback when Spradling re-entered the game.
The Wildcats opened the second half on a 5-0 run, and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford called a timeout to regroup when Gipson threw down a dunk that made the score 35-32. And regroup the Cowboys did, converting back-to-back Shane Southwell turnovers into a 40-32 lead.
Marcus Smart, who scored 18 points, blanketed Marcus Foster, holding him to nine points. Without its top scorer, K-State struggled to stay close.
“It was Senior Night, and they wanted to come out and play hard. That’s what they did,” said Gipson, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds. “We stuck with them in the first half. Then they came out and made that run. We just didn’t respond well, and they went off with it.”
A balanced attack allowed them to do so. With 15 points from Markel Brown, 13 points by Le’Bryan Nash, and the efforts of Forte and Smart, Oklahoma State went on to an easy victory.
Nino Williams, D.J. Johnson, Southwell and Foster all tried to keep the game within reach, but they couldn’t deliver the same type of all-hands-on-deck effort they brought to the floor two days earlier in a home victory over Iowa State — one in which the Wildcats outscored the Cyclones 38-2 in bench points.
Foster missed 12 shots. Southwell scored four points. And Johnson failed to make an impact on the game. Iwundu played admirably in the second half, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and so did Spradling, finishing with nine points.
But it was too little on a night when it seemed as if the Cowboys, 20-10 overall and 8-9 in the Big 12, had more energy at important times. That was noticeable in the second half, when K-State was still within single digits. A loose ball bounced near midcourt, where Foster and Spradling were both in position to snag it. But Forte zoomed in between them and came away with the ball.
“There’s not much you can say,” Weber said. “I thought we played well early, probably did some of the best passing, ball movement kind of things. They ran a couple of things at us and we reacted to it well. Then a timeout or something turned it up and they played like big boys and we didn’t react very well.
“It wasn’t that we quit or anything. We just didn’t compete.”
With the loss, Kansas State’s hopes of finishing second in the Big 12 took a hit. The Wildcats, 20-10 and 10-7, could have clinched the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament had they won their final two games. Now they need to win their final game against Baylor on Saturday and hope Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas all lose one of their two remaining games to finish in a second-place tie.
Oklahoma State has got to like its chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys have erased the pain of seven straight losses with four consecutive victories. The last two came against Kansas and Kansas State, moving them within realistic reach of an at-large berth.
Oklahoma State got contributions from all over and good things happened. For K-State, the opposite occurred.
“I’m surprised. It’s always the next man up,” Gipson said. “We had foul trouble and a lot of people had opportunities. People just didn’t step up.”