After getting outplayed for much of the game, the Kansas State basketball team flexed its muscles in crunch time against Baylor and pulled away for a 70-63 victory on Saturday at Ferrell Center.
It was easily one of the Wildcats’ hardest-fought wins of the season.
And it impressed the heck out of Bears coach Scott Drew.
“They are a team that can not only win the Big 12, but a national championship,” Drew said. “Because you don’t normally return that kind of experience with that kind of talent. Coach (Bruce) Weber has done a great job with them.”
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What seemed like an easy opportunity for the Wildcats to pull ahead in the Big 12 basketball race turned out to be anything but simple against the short-handed Bears. Missing starting guards King McClure and Makai Mason did little to hinder Baylor, as the active players on the roster pulled together without them and played well enough to lead by seven midway through second half.
But K-State prevailed with a mixture of timely shots, toughness and an incredible assist from Cartier Diarra.
The Wildcats (18-5, 8-2 in the Big 12) fought back from a 48-41 hole and took a 54-53 lead with 6:11 remaining when Diarra drained a deep three-pointer. And they never looked back. The best was actually yet to come.
Kamau Stokes added to the lead with another three-pointer, Dean Wade hit a pair of free throws and Barry Brown drained a three of his own that made it 62-53.
As the Bears tried to fight back, Diarra crushed their spirit with an amazing long pass to Brown for a transition dunk. On the play, Diarra jumped out of bounds to save a loose ball behind the K-State baseline and somehow flipped it up court and found Brown in stride for an uncontested score.
He came through with K-State’s best assist of the season a game after delivering the team’s dunk of the year on Tuesday against Kansas.
“It was going out of bounds,” Diarra said. “Using my athleticism, I just jumped and used a little hang time to read the court and see where everybody was at. I saw Barry looking like he wanted me to throw it long, so I threw it long and he went and got it before the other Baylor player. It looked really good, I bet.”
Diarra scored all 10 of his points in the second half to join a group of three other K-State players in double figures.
Stokes closed out the game by making a string of free throws on his way to 20 points. The senior guard played one of his finest games of the season by making three three-pointers and all seven of his free throws. He also grabbed six rebounds and added four assists.
“We attacked their zone pretty good,” Stokes said. “It all came down to making shots, and we made them when they mattered most.”
Indeed, the Wildcats benefited from balanced scoring in this one. Brown had 13 points, Wade added 12 and Diarra finished with 10.
“I was really hoping to see Dean Wade in a NBA uniform this year and Barry Brown playing in the NBA, but it didn’t happen,” Drew said. “They were in the Ferrell.”
Baylor tried to win by shutting down Brown and Wade, but K-State’s two best players got too much help for that strategy to work.
K-State players exited the court telling each other they “clawed out” a victory.
Indeed. The Bears looked anything but short-handed, especially in the first half.
Baylor pulled ahead early 17-12 and remained in front for most of the opening half. The Bears forced the Wildcats into turnovers and made 48.1 percent of their shots, with Freddie Gillespie leading the way.
The Baylor forward connected on 5 of 6 shots before halftime to top all scorers with 10 points.
It seemed like the Bears were destined to head into the locker room with momentum when Mark Vital went coast to coast for a transition dunk after blocking a shot from K-State forward Makol Mawien. Vital’s slam gave Baylor a 29-25 lead with two minutes remaining, and Weber called for a timeout to compose his team.
But that became a turning point for K-State, which closed out the half with six straight points for a 31-29 halftime lead. The points came on a challenged floater from Stokes, and a pair of physical layups from Mawien.
Baylor appeared to outplay K-State in the first half, but the Wildcats were in the lead. The second half played out in similar fashion, but K-State was on top when it was over.
The victory puts K-State in even better position to win a conference championship. With Iowa State surprisingly dropping a home game to TCU, it felt like the Wildcats won twice Saturday.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Weber said. “There is a long way to go, eight games. We just have to keep plugging away one game at a time.”