Forget for a moment that Kansas State spent the past year adding new recruits and transfers to its roster in hopes of becoming deeper and more versatile than it previously has been under men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber.
Sophomore Marcus Foster, the team’s leading scorer a year ago and top overall talent, remains the driving force of this group.
He proved as much Monday during an 88-79 victory over Purdue in the opening game of the Maui Invitational by leading all scorers with 24 points and making big play after big play when the Boilermakers threatened to steal the victory in the second half.
Foster’s highlights included: a three-pointer moments after Purdue began seriously fighting back from a 58-38 deficit that kept K-State up 13 midway through the second half, a deeper three that beat the shot clock and kept K-State up 10, and a more important three that put K-State up 10 with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining.
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“Sometimes you just got to have guts,” Foster said, “and step up and take that big shot.”
In between, he dove for loose balls, passed with precision and created turnovers.
“There is no doubt that was his best game,” Weber said of Foster. “Not only was he shooting the ball well, but I thought he did a great job with his energy … He made big shots. You need your best players to play well. He came through and made big plays in the second half.”
Foster couldn’t have chosen a more opportune time to up his form. Days after looking lifeless in a 69-60 loss to Long Beach State on the way to Maui, K-State, 3-1, bounced back with its best victory of the year against Purdue, 3-1.
“It is very satisfying,” said senior forward Thomas Gipson, after scoring nine points. “We feel real good about ourselves. We know what we can do and we know what we are capable of. We just have to watch film and take this into the next game. It has always been us to play like that, especially on the defensive end. I guess it just took a big stage to take it out of us.”
K-State hopes Foster, who started slowly, averaging 11.3 points in his first three games, can continue playing the way he did against the Boilermakers.
When he is at his best, the Wildcats think they can compete with anyone. When he is not, such as a five-point stinker against Long Beach State, they can struggle.
“It was all about bouncing back,” Foster said. “I felt I let my team down with how I played and I had to bounce back. I have got to play like this every game. I have got to bring energy for my team. I can’t be walking around. This is something I need to do every game.”
Of course, he wasn’t the only K-State player to come through on Monday.
Junior forward Stephen Hurt fought through foul trouble and scored 11 points against Purdue big man Isaac Haas, who caused problems for the Wildcats. Nino Williams and Wesley Iwundu, both starting for the first time this season, each scored 10 points. And Gipson saved his best play for the second half, hitting a crucial shot over Haas after Purdue pulled to within 75-70.
Kendall Stephens and Haas both led Purdue with 21 points, but it wasn’t enough.
K-State raced to a 39-24 halftime lead, overwhelming Purdue with a full-court press and aggressive substitutions. Weber asked his players to go as hard as they could for short spurts, and got 11 players on the floor.
The result was a jolt of energy and swarming defense, exactly what Weber was hoping for when he altered K-State’s starting lineup, leaving Hurt and Maine transfer Justin Edwards on the bench. The Wildcats forced 13 turnovers, scoring 22 points off them.
“I thought the game was dictated right from the beginning,” Weber said. “We had a great sense of urgency and guarded the heck out of them … We kind of set the tone for the game.”
A series of plays by point guard Nigel Johnson highlighted the style of play. In the first half, he stole a pass at midcourt and converted into a fast-break layup, only to steal Purdue’s inbounds pass and hit a jumper.
“They were very physical and they were very quick to the ball,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “They just played so hard in the first half. I thought that was the difference in the game. We turned the ball over, but you have to give their pressure credit.”
With the victory, K-State advanced to the winners’ bracket semifinals and will face No. 3 Arizona at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
Another challenging game awaits.
If Foster delivers again, K-State likes it chances.
“I played well, but it was really a team effort today,” Foster said. “We have just got to keep rolling with it. We really figured out how we need to play every night.”