Say what you will about Kansas State’s wacky basketball season — which has shown us everything from head-scratching losses against directional schools to thrilling victories over ranked opponents — but there is one thing you cannot question about these Wildcats.
They have truckloads of it.
K-State refused to give up on its season following a three-game losing streak two weeks ago that left the team at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference standings, and it never quit when it fell behind by 14 points during a 63-61 victory over Baylor on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.
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The Wildcats, 11-7 overall and 4-1 in the Big 12, kept fighting until they completed the 12th largest comeback in program history against the No. 22 Bears, 13-4 and 2-3. It was K-State’s fourth straight victory and its second win over a ranked foe in three games, and after KU’s loss at Iowa State the Wildcats were alone atop the Big 12.
“It’s a credit to our guys,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We hung in there. We didn’t look very good the first 10 minutes, too many turnovers. I think we overthought their zone. … We told the guys, ‘Last year we were at their place, we led 30-20 (and lost). You just have to keep fighting and grinding.’ ”
No problem there. Behind 18 points and seven rebounds from senior forward Nino Williams, 11 points from Marcus Foster, nine points from Thomas Gipson and game-changing defense from Wesley Iwundu, the Wildcats slowly climbed out of a 24-10 hole and dramatically won in front of a sellout crowd of 12,528.
What set this comeback apart from most was that it was driven by defense.
Baylor took a 14-point lead midway through the first half behind the strong play of guard Kenny Chery, who scored 16 of his 21 points before halftime. K-State tried to slow him down with different defensive looks, but he shot over all of them.
Chery was at his best near the end of the half, when K-State fought to within 24-22. By making back-to-back threes, Chery helped Baylor take a 33-24 lead into halftime.
“Kenny was on fire,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
It certainly felt that way until Iwundu began defending Chery in the second half and he was much quieter, giving K-State an opportunity to fight back.
“They made good adjustments,” said Chery, who missed a runner at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime. “They are a really good defensive team and it was more difficult to score.”
Iwundu began defending Chery by chance, when he switched in front of him following a screen. Iwundu’s 6-foot-7 frame turned out to be too much for the 5-foot-11 Chery.
“The length bothered Chery,” Weber said. “He loves Bramlage, obviously, and then we tried to force him a little bit more left. Everyone in the stands knows he is going right, and we did a little better job than that. That length maybe bothered him and kept him out of rhythm.”
Iwundu embraced the challenge. At halftime, he said the team’s entire focus was on slowing Chery. Point guard Jevon Thomas and Foster could do little against him. But Iwundu forced Chery to take off-balance shots, at one point stealing a crossover at midcourt and taking it the other way for a pair of free throws.
Other than an early layup and a late runner and free throw, Chery did little in the final 20 minutes, leaving most of the scoring responsibilities to Taurean Prince, who scored 20.
“All that was going through my mind was, make him take contested shots,” Iwundu said after scoring eight points and handing out six assists. “He wants to go right and shoot the ball, so I was leaning on him and making him go left and just bothering him with my length to create tough shots for him.
“We did a good job of coming out and shutting him down in the second half and limiting him.”
Still, K-State faced a steep climb. Despite pulling within five points on several occasions, the Wildcats trailed 49-37 with 11:27 remaining. That’s when Foster, K-State’s leading scorer, picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench.
The Wildcats, it seemed, were sunk.
“I was feeling good,” Drew said. “I know how quickly Foster can light up the scoreboard, and that was the part of the game where I thought we needed to get separation, but credit K-State for hanging tough. … There are no safe leads in the Big 12.”
K-State proved that much by ending the afternoon on a 26-12 run with reserve Justin Edwards making athletic plays, Nigel Johnson hitting an important three and Williams making play after play.
“Everybody in the Big 12 is a good team, so no one can ever get comfortable,” Williams said. “We knew we were going to get our chance. We just had to get a couple of stops and get a couple of scores. We got some shutouts in a row, and then were fortunate enough to make some easy baskets.”
Momentum slowly began to shift toward K-State before it took its first lead with 6:22 remaining on a free throw from Edwards, which put the Wildcats up 52-51.
The home crowd erupted with more excitement than it has shown all season and stayed loud the rest of the way.
K-State players emphatically celebrated at the final buzzer, and why not?
Two weeks after falling to .500 they are near the top of the Big 12 standings.
“Those three losses, either you break off or you come together,” Weber said. “Maybe we have made some strides there.”