Bruce Weber scheduled Friday’s game against Long Beach State as a warm up for the Maui Invitational. The plan was for Kansas State to earn an early road victory that could propel it to bigger things against stronger competition next week.
Perhaps that is why the Wildcats basketball coach took the outcome, a 69-60 loss at the Walter Pyramid, harder than others. When it was over, he addressed his players so loudly and sternly in the visitor’s locker room that his voice carried past closed doors and into nearby rooms.
“You can say, ‘Why did you come here and play?’” Weber said in his postgame news conference. “I think it is good for our team. It’s good to find out what they’re made of early. If you think you are good and you want to compete in the (Big 12) you are going to have to play a little better than that.”
Indeed, the offensive firepower K-State displayed in its first two games disappeared in front of a small but rowdy crowd of 4,256.
After lighting up Southern Utah for 98 points and UMKC for 83 points in a pair of home victories, the Wildcats struggled to find the bottom of the net in their first road game. They also had trouble maintaining possession of the ball and playing defense, but a lack of offense was the main reason for this defeat.
Marcus Foster, the team’s best player and leading scorer a year ago, was held scoreless much of the way and never found his usual shooting rhythm, making one of 13 shots on his way to five points. Justin Edwards, hyped as an all-around scoring threat, missed nine of 10 shots in a two-point effort. Jevon Thomas, the team’s starting point guard, finished with five points.
As a team, K-State made 32.8 percent of its shots, going three of 21 from three-point range.
“We had a lot of open shots and we missed them,” said senior forward Nino Williams, after scoring 12 points in his first game of the year. “We just struggled getting Thomas (Gipson) the ball inside and Marcus couldn’t find a rhythm. I don’t think anyone could find a rhythm.”
Added Weber: “It’s my fault we are not ready to play offensively.”
A NBA scout watching from the stands summed up K-State’s struggles in the second half by shaking his head after Edwards missed an open three, saying to no one in particular, “They have been off all night.”
The loss sends K-State, 2-1, into its anticipated trip to the Maui Invitational with a thud and continues a trend of road struggles under Weber. A year ago, the Wildcats were one of the nation’s worst away teams, beating only Texas Tech and TCU in true road games.
The crowd, many of which wore bright yellow shirts reminding the Wildcats they “are not in Kansas anymore,” made things challenging. Long Beach had a legitimate home-court atmosphere in the biggest home game on the 49ers’ schedule.
Gipson, though, said the environment didn’t play a factor in the result.
“I put this loss on us, not them,” Gipson said after scoring 13 points. “The atmosphere was good but It’s nothing we haven’t been through before. We play at Phog Allen (Fieldhouse), we play at Oklahoma State. We play at a lot of places. The crowd was good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just something we should be used to.”
It was obvious from the start it was going to be a rough night for the Wildcats. K-State missed its first nine shots, falling behind 9-2 less than six minutes into the game and trailed Long Beach, 2-2, by as many as 14 near the end of the first half. At one point, K-State had made five of 27 shots.
The Wildcats did well to go into halftime with the score 33-26. If not for Nino Williams, shaking off a nagging knee injury to play in his first game of the season, hitting a long jumper at the end of the first half on his way to 12 points and freshman Tre Harris coming off the bench to hit two three-pointers and score eight points, things could have been worse.
“We didn’t play that good,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “But we started good in each half.”
Weber was obviously upset with the way his team was playing. When the second half began, Gipson was the only member of the starting lineup on the court. Weber surrounded him with Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson, Williams and Harris.
“Those other guys gave us a lift in the first half,” Weber said. “We had to go with guys who are going to play hard and do what we ask. They got the opportunity. Obviously, that group didn’t get much done, either.”
Mike Caffey and Branford Jones each scored 13 points and David Samuels added 10 points for the 49ers, negating many of the positive plays K-State made in the second half.
Still, the Wildcats fought their way back into the game in the final moments.
A late alley-oop dunk by Iwundu, from Thomas, brought K-State’s bench and supporters to their feet. Then Foster followed with a pair of free throws and Iwundu made a layup. Add on a Williams free throw and K-State was within 57-53.
But its comeback hopes died when Eric McKnight blocked a layup attempt from Foster, leading to a fast break that Tyler Lamb turned into three points on the other end. Weber and Foster both thought the block should have been ruled goaltending, making it a one-possession game, but the officials saw things differently.
“Our guys forced a lot of stuff,” Weber said. “We did not play strong enough.”
K-State spent the final two minutes playing a hopeless game of catch up.
Then again, the Wildcats were doing that all night.