Front line falls short for K-State

Will Spradling flashed a confident smile. Shane Southwell nodded his head. Jordan Henriquez had a look of total confidence.

As the jam-packed crowd roared before tip-off at Allen Fieldhouse, the No. 10 Wildcats appeared ready — maybe even eager — to take on their in-state rivals in a matchup that could have strengthened their one-game lead in the Big 12 standings.

And, for a while, they played No. 14 Kansas even. Then Henriquez, a senior forward, picked up his first foul and a tie game quickly turned into an 83-62 nightmare, K-State’s most lopsided loss under new coach Bruce Weber.

“All the things that got us where we are — our defense, our toughness, our discipline — they weren’t there today,” Weber said. “That’s disappointing, because I thought we would have competed a little better. I know it’s a tough environment and we caught them at the wrong time, but it should have been more of a game.”

It could have been if not for Henriquez leaving the game immediately after being called for a blocking foul against Elijah Johnson a little more than 3 minutes in. Weber couldn’t find anyone capable of replacing him.

First, he went with backup forward Thomas Gipson, who has played brilliantly lately, but he picked up two fouls in less than 2 minutes. He had to spend the majority of the first half on the bench, which meant Henriquez had to come back in with one foul.

It wasn’t long before he earned his second. With 13:28 remaining in the first half, he attempted to block a shot from Ben McLemore as he drove to the basket, making contact in the process on what appeared to be a hard, but routine, foul. Instead, the officials whistled him for a flagrant foul, awarding Kansas free throws and the ball.

That sequence seemed to alter the game. K-State’s two best inside players were relegated to the bench, and its confident attitude no longer mattered. Against a much smaller front line, Kansas broke open a 7-7 tie with a 35-19 run to end the first half. By then, the game was effectively over.

“They hit a couple threes, but they also got a lot of easy dunks,” said junior guard Will Spradling, who scored 10 points. “That’s something we didn’t give up the first game. When they get dunks at home that gets the crowd going, too, and they feed off that crowd really well.”

A frustrated Weber sent freshman forward D.J. Johnson in, but he was not prepared for the moment and looked out of place on offense. So Weber decided to go with seldom-used forward Adrian Diaz, but he didn’t perform any better.

Making things even worse, Shane Southwell picked up his second foul midway through the first half and K-State had to make due without its top three interior players.

Eventually, Weber had no choice but to send Gipson and Henriquez back in despite their foul trouble.

“To have Thomas Gipson in the game gives us a better threat inside,” Weber said. “Jordan can do some things defensive that Thomas doesn’t do, but … We had one guy with two (fouls) another guy with two (fouls) another guy with two (fouls) and now you’re kind of scrambling and they just got going.”

Weber didn’t have a lineup change ready to stop them.

There was more to this loss than foul trouble, though. Behind 30 points from McLemore and 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks from center Jeff Withey, Kansas was clearly the better team.

But K-State’s best stretch came early in the second half, when Henriquez returned and Weber had a full lineup at his disposal. Behind 20 points from Rodney McGruder and 17 points from Angel Rodriguez, the Wildcats pulled to within 58-43 with 14:04 remaining.

Then Withey threw down an emphatic dunk despite being fouled by Henriquez to spark another run.

Maybe things would have been different without early fouls. Maybe not. The Wildcats weren’t interested in the hypothetical.

“You can’t have excuses,” Weber said. “That is part of basketball. Ben was in foul trouble in our place and we didn’t take advantage of it … Here, they went and took advantage of the opportunity.”