Marcus Foster hung his head as he walked off the floor following a 72-68 loss to No. 3 Arizona on Tuesday in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.
K-State fought a favored opponent punch-for-punch from the opening tip to the final buzzer, playing with more energy and passion than it has all season. That put K-State within reach of an upset that would have gone down as the team’s biggest nonconference victory under third-year coach Bruce Weber.
Leaving Lahaina Civic Center with a loss under those circumstances was frustrating for Foster, the sophomore guard, especially after he made six three-pointers and led all scorers with 23 points. But his emotions quickly changed after listening to Weber’s postgame speech. He even flashed a smile on his way to the team bus.
“The sky is the limit if we keep playing like that,” Foster said. “These two games (in Maui) have really set the tone on what kind of team we need to be. If we keep playing like that, we are definitely going to be the talk around the nation.”
Forgive K-State, a team that doesn’t usually believe in moral victories, for looking at the big picture and talking about the positives that could ultimately come from a competitive loss to Arizona.
If K-State can continues to play well against Pittsburgh Wednesday (on ESPN2) to claim third place at this tournament, it will view its trip to Maui as a success.
Arizona coach Sean Miller agrees.
“There is not a loser in this game,” Miller said. “We knew before we played Kansas State that they were a very, very good team.… You don’t return those players with a great coach and coaching staff and go out there and clearly be the better team.
“There isn’t a lot of difference between our teams. I say that because I feel like we left with a hard-fought victory over an excellent basketball team.”
The game was evenly matched aside from a two-minute stretch in the second half that heavily favored Arizona.
That made all the difference. The margin for error is small when you are playing the nation’s third-ranked team. One bad series can lead to a loss, no matter how well you play the rest of the game. K-State learned that harsh lesson.
The stretch that did in K-State began with 12 minutes, 48 seconds remaining, with the Wildcats up 43-42. It went like this:
Arizona big man Kaleb Tarczewski hit a reverse layup to give his team a 44-43 lead, then Brandon Ashley made a pair of free throws. Foster responded with a missed three only to see T.J. McConnell hit a three on the other end. Then Wesley Iwundu lost a ball off his fingers out of bounds, which led to a three from Gabe York.
Just like that, K-State trailed 52-43.
The Arizona supporters, who outnumbered K-State fans by a wide margin, came alive.
“We missed a few shots and went down and broke down defensively,” Weber said. “That is where we have got to grow up and learn. When teams make runs on us, we have to make sure we get good shots. We can’t be casual with passes. We really have to be disciplined on the defensive end. I guess the only way you can do that is to go through these experiences.”
Still, K-State played with enough energy to keep the game close until the end.
Behind Foster, K-State fought back and had several chances to take a lead in the closing moments.
Foster hit a three with 2:31 remaining that made the score 66-64. If K-State could win the final minutes, it was going to win the game.
But Arizona, led by 18 points from Tarczewski, 15 points from York and 14 points from Stanley Johnson, made more shots down the stretch.
K-State responded with a turnover, a foul and two misses before Foster hit another three to make the score 69-67. After an Arizona free throw, K-State still had a shot at overtime. And Foster nearly got it there when he tried to put up a three while being fouled with 5.7 seconds on the clock. But the officials said the foul came before the ball left Foster’s hand, awarding him two free throws instead of one.
Arizona held on.
“We just didn’t execute down the stretch,” Foster said. “I think we turned it up a little too late. We guarded a little better at the end, which allowed us to get back into it. They are a good opponent, and I think we played hard against them.”
The execution wasn’t quite good enough, but that could change as the season progresses.
“If we keep playing like we did yesterday and today we are going to beat a lot of good teams,” Weber said. “We have got to get a little bit better on the offensive end against good people and teams that really guard. Hopefully, that will come when we get back. Right now we have got to come up with that big-time effort tomorrow and see if we can get third place.”