Have a week, Kansas State.
A winning week in Big 12 play had been rare for the Wildcats. A 2-0 record over a short stretch doesn’t seem like a big ask but Kansas State hadn’t turned a perfect conference week since the end of 2014-15.
That changed on Saturday with the Wildcats’ 79-75 triumph over seventh-ranked West Virginia, which stands as K-State’s most significant outcome of the season.
Before Saturday, the Wildcats had followed their previous eight Big 12 victories with losses, including the first three this season. Throw in last season’s Big 12 Tournament and the slide was nine.
It’s no mystery how this happens in a conference that has sent 70 percent of its teams to the NCAA Tournament each of the past three seasons.
“It’s so unforgiving,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “You’ve got different styles, you’ve got good coaches, really good players. Last year we were an older league, this year we’re a younger league and the younger players are pretty good.”
The inability by K-State to create a Big 12 streak had meant no momentum and lost opportunities to build credentials. The most painful example occurred last season when the Wildcats followed their toppling of top-ranked Oklahoma with a clunker at Bramlage against Baylor. A victory over the Bears might have altered the season’s trajectory and kick-started a run toward the postseason.
Perhaps Saturday’s outcome that improved Kansas State to 4-3 in Big 12 play will accomplish that goal.
On Tuesday, Kansas State outscored Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Although the Cowboys were winless in the Big 12 at the time, nothing about the Wildcats’ recent history in road games and at Oklahoma State portended success there.
But the Wildcats held on for the victory, and found a different way to win on Saturday.
West Virginia’s press took its toll in the first half. Twice in row, Kansas State got dinged for five-second calls as the Mountaineers built a 12-point lead late in the half.
Back came the Wildcats, scoring the final 10 points of the first half, taking the lead early in the second and stretching it out before West Virginia staged a rally of its own. The Mountaineers made up their own double-digit deficit and took a late lead.
Here, K-State had to overcome another recent troubling trend. Three of the Wildcats’ four losses had been heartbreakers, to Maryland, at Kansas and at Texas Tech. A friendly bounce (or a traveling call in Lawrence) to reverse one or some of the outcomes and the Wildcats could be ranked.
When the Mountaineers took a 68-67 lead with 4:56 remaining on Saturday, Kansas State faced another every-possession-matters finish.
This time, Kansas State kept its composure and made the plays, none bigger than Barry Brown’s steal and layup with 23.3 seconds remaining to push a three-point lead to five. West Virginia didn’t have the ball again with a chance to tie.
The Brown steal was K-State’s 14th of the game and marked West Virginia’s 23rd turnover. Usually, it’s the Mountaineers that create and feed off the mistakes of others. Saturday, Kansas State led West Virginia 25-15 in points off turnovers.
But the distinctive quality of this team is offense. This is shaping up as Weber’s best scoring team in his five seasons. Had the Wildcats not clanked so many free throws — they made just 17 of 31 that helped keep things close — they’d have reached 80 points for the ninth time this season.
The next time they do, K-State will match last year’s total of 80-point games. Saturday, on a night when K-State’s Wesley Iwundu grabbed nine rebounds to become the first player in program history with 1,000 points, 500 boards, 300 assists and 100 steals, everybody pitched in.
Five starters scored between 13-15, including guard Kamau Stokes, who logged 36 minutes on an ankle injured earlier in the week, and one of the biggest contributions came from the bench when Carlbe Ervin II, stuck back a missed free throw late in the first half to keep the K-State momentum flowing.
Momentum can be a fleeting thing, as the Wildcats well know. But this time, Kansas State finished the game, and just as importantly, the week.