One by one, Kansas State basketball players sulked off the court when West Virginia finished a 76-72 victory on Wednesday.
They were understandably frustrated. It was their fifth loss in a row, and the Wildcats now have a losing record in February for the first time since 2004.
Worst of all, they knew how close they were to avoiding both scenarios.
“I thought we had it,” K-State sophomore guard Nigel Johnson said after scoring 14 points. “At the end of the game, they got some calls we didn’t get … But there isn’t much you can do about that. I feel like we fought hard.”
The Wildcats showed fight in the second half, battling back from a 46-35 halftime deficit to take a 69-67 lead with 2 minutes, 25 seconds remaining on a layup and free throw by senior forward Nino Williams, who led all scorers with 22 points. However, the Wildcats could not hold on against the 21st-ranked Mountaineers.
For the second time in three games, K-State displayed enough heart to climb out of a hole and stay competitive on the road. But they did not display poise. The Wildcats, 12-13 overall and 5-7 in the Big 12, were put away late in both losses.
At Texas Tech, they closed to within one with nearly 8 minutes left and lost by 17. Wednesday, they appeared in control before surrendering too many turnovers and free throws to pull an upset.
“We finally got over the hump and took the lead,” Weber said. “I was just hoping and praying that some good things would happen for us, but they made the plays and that was the difference in the game.”
West Virginia, 19-5 and 7-4, rallied back behind a pair of free throws from Nathan Adrian, a travel call against Williams, a layup from Devin Williams, a turnover by Justin Edwards and an intentional foul against Johnson.
Johnson was baffled by the call, which led to two game-clinching free throws by Jevon Carter.
“I was just trying to make a play on the ball,” Johnson said. “He was in front of me and I had to foul. The only thing I really could do was grab his jersey, but I didn’t really think it was an intentional foul. I was just trying to save time by fouling and make him shoot some free throws.”
Weber thought the foul was a microcosm of the game.
“You have got to execute,” he said. “You have got to have fundamentals. They get a basket, we turn it over on an out-of-bounds play … Nino has got to jump and catch the ball and not get called for travelling. Those little plays make the difference.”
So does a miserable ending to the first half.
K-State gave itself a large hole to climb out of with poor play in the opening half. That may have been the true turning point in the game.
With 3 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the first half, both teams huddled up for the final media timeout. West Virginia was leading by six, and everyone understood the importance of what was coming.
The Wildcats needed to hang tough to give themselves a puncher’s chance in the second half. The Mountaineers wanted to close with a knockout blow.
West Virginia got what it was hoping for by scoring eight straight points and closing out the half up 11.
“I thought the difference in the game was probably that little stretch at the end of the first half,” Weber said. “Now you are chasing by so much instead of being right there.”
For K-State, there was little chance of coming back from that deficit. Not on the road. Not with one timeout remaining. And not with Marcus Foster and Malek Harris watching from the locker room suspended.
Both players have missed three games for violating unspecified team rules. Weber said he would re-evaluate their statuses before K-State’s next game against Oklahoma on Saturday. Sources say both players are expected to be active.
Perhaps their returns can push the Wildcats back into the win column. They showed several signs of progress against the Mountaineers, despite the loss, attacking West Virginia’s zone much more aggressively than they did during a 65-59 home loss last month.
Edwards scored 14 points, while Thomas Gipson added 10.
“We battled hard, which is a good thing,” Edwards said. “We didn’t just sit there and lie down. Everyone was playing. It was good.”
Overall, it was one of K-State’s better days on offense, with seven different players scoring.
Problem was, 10 different players scored for West Virginia with Brandon Watkins leading the way with 14 points and nine rebounds.
Not that Huggins was complimentary of his team afterward.
“We were awful,” Huggins said. “They had 18 points in the paint in the first half. We didn’t do a good job defensively. Do you know how efficient we really could be when we make layups and dunks?”
Those are the words K-State players wanted to hear from the opposing coach.
They simply did not get the matching result.
“We should have won,” Edwards said. “That makes it a hard one.”