The end of a loss is never good, but it isn’t usually this bad, either.
Kansas State’s point guard takes four dribbles across the court, from left to right, and this is when the first of two screens is supposed to hit, only the first screen never hit. Then the second one missed, too.
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And after you watch the final play of K-State’s 51-50 loss to West Virginia in a Big 12 tournament semifinal a few dozen times — trust me, it doesn’t get better — you realize this is the moment the play died a sad, whimpering, head-shaking death.
“It really sucks,” K-State forward Dean Wade said.
There are a hundred reasons KSU lost, blowing a 12-point lead and an opportunity to play Iowa State for the tournament championship on Saturday despite holding West Virginia to 26.7 percent shooting and committing just 11 turnovers. Nearly all of those reasons have nothing to do with this one last play.
West Virginia scored what turned out to be the game-winning point on a free throw, after a shoulder shrug of a call went against K-State’s D.J. Johnson — who, it must be said, always seems to have a shoulder shrug of a call go against him at a key moment — on a rebound with 19 seconds left.
To be clear, the Wildcats played well enough to win. They were tough, particularly on defense, and could’ve beaten a top-20 team for the second consecutive night. But they also missed 16 of 21 three-pointers, were out-rebounded by nine, managed just two steals, and went long chunks of this game with little apparent purpose and even less conviction on offense.
We could talk for an hour about why his team lost to West Virginia without ever mentioning that last play.
But, c’mon, how bad was that last play?
“We wanted to get Kam on the move,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.
“Their defense was a little different than we thought it was going to be,” Wade said.
“We just didn’t do it,” Kamau Stokes said. “Credit West Virginia.”
That last part is said after nearly every game, in every sport, at every level, but West Virginia — KenPom’s fourth-ranked defensive team, as of late Friday night — did its part.
Weber didn’t want to call timeout. He had the last play set up in the previous dead ball, but the Wildcats took too long coming up the floor, so Weber called time with 10 seconds left.
The idea for the last play, like many ideas, sounded great — two ball screens for Stokes, with Johnson diving to the post and Wade popping for a jumper. Ideally, Stokes would burst off the screens, turn the corner, and either make the play himself, dish to Johnson, or find Wesley Iwundu or Barry Brown, who were set up in the corners.
West Virginia had been switching between man and zone defense, but this particular play could be effective against either. Sounded like a winner — and it may have been.
Except West Virginia coach Bob Huggins — and he didn’t mention this after the game — tricked K-State. He had Jevon Carter guarding Iwundu on the left wing, but releasing almost immediately to force Stokes’ break across the court higher than K-State planned.
This meant Stokes couldn’t set up his man well enough for the first screen by Johnson, and it threw off the timing and placement of the second screen by Wade. Weber wanted two screens set, but the way West Virginia played it, none were set.
“It kind of messed us up a little bit,” Wade said.
After the second screen whiffed, Stokes took three more dribbles to the right wing before pulling up with about six seconds left, the 6-foot guard smothered by the 6-foot-9 Elijah Macon.
Weber thought the skip pass to Iwundu back on the left wing was open, and it may have been, though Carter — the two-time conference defensive player of the year — was in position to adjust.
Some of the assistants thought Johnson was open in the post, and he appeared to be for a moment, but could’ve positioned himself with more gusto, and besides, it’s hard to know what Stokes could’ve seen around Macon.
Stokes was, at that moment, the basketball equivalent of a fish flopping on the deck. He shouldn’t have picked up his dribble, but his teammates could’ve worked better to get the ball. His only option ended up a fadeaway, desperation heave that had no realistic chance at the buzzer.
“It was plenty of options,” Stokes said.
“We didn’t do a good enough job getting open,” Johnson said.
“I wish (Stokes) could’ve come off it a little stronger, but they did a good job defensively,” Weber said.
It was, like most things in team sports, a collective failure. Nobody reacted well to West Virginia pushing Stokes high, the screens missed, Stokes picked up his dribble too soon, his teammates didn’t get open enough, and Weber is the coach in charge.
K-State likely solidified — we have to say it like that this time of year — an NCAA Tournament spot with its win over Baylor the previous night. Maybe now they’ll be sent to Dayton for what NCAA officials don’t like to be called a play-in game, but even then K-State will have the opportunity to play its way to the main field.
So, in real terms, this isn’t an enormous problem. Some of the criticism toward Weber will spark up again, but not as much, and not with the same likely consequences, as it would’ve against Baylor.
But this was a night that Weber’s team spent 35 minutes or so making you believe, looking like a rock solid NCAA Tournament team that would play for a conference tournament championship, and then lost, at the buzzer, a combination of bad luck, a bad break, and its own failings, with a final play thrown off by a surprising but relatively simple wrinkle from the defense.
You know, just in case you were wondering where fans’ frustration comes from.