If anyone understands the difficulty of winning at Kansas State when the home building is juiced and the Wildcats play with purpose, it’s Lon Kruger.
As a player for the Wildcats, Kruger was a two-time Big Eight player of the year. As an assistant and head coach, Kansas State was always a league contender and almost always an NCAA Tournament team.
More than a quarter century and several coaching assignments later, Kruger was served a painful reminder of K-State’s inhospitality.
Oklahoma arrived Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum needing a victory to remain atop the Big 12 and another week at No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. The Sooners left 80-69 losers to a Kansas State team that played its best game of the season and was perhaps the top game of Wesley Iwundu’s career.
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Iwundu drew the Buddy Hield assignment, and those who have attempted to check Hield understand the enormity of the task.
Hield is likely to become the national player of the year as a senior on the strength of his scoring ability. He entered the game averaging 25.8 points, a mark topped one by only other player in league history — K-State’s Michael Beasley at 26.2 in 2008 — and matched by Texas’ Kevin Durant a year earlier.
Hield is exceptional, and so was Iwundu on Saturday, bothering Hield with his length and quick feet that allowed him to stay attached.
“Guys like him, you have to attack off the dribble,” Hield said. “I should have done that earlier.”
Hield finished with 23 points but needed 16 shots to get them. Iwundu didn’t attempt a field goal in the game’s first 16 1/2 minutes as if to establish his priority. By halftime, both players had six points, and Iwundu added four assists. Iwundu wound up with 22 points.
“We needed somebody to be special,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “Wesley was really, really special.”
Only a run of missed free throws prevented the Wildcats from opening a bigger margin earlier. But as good as Kansas State was playing on the defensive end, just an average effort on the offensive end would suffice.
The Wildcats had a beauty of a possession late, draining the shot clock nearly to expiration when D.J. Johnson broke for the basket, took a bounce pass from Justin Edwards and laid it in just before the buzzer.
That was the belief moment for Kansas State, and it occurred with about 2:45 remaining. Oklahoma’s reality check occurred later, when frustration overcame guard Isaiah Cousins. A Sooners turnover turned into a foul. Cousins held the ball, then kicked it across the court and received a technical foul.
The final seconds ticked away, and the second-best defense of the evening emerged. Kansas State security set up strategically around the floor, prepared to enforce an earlier warning from the public-address announcer for the students to resist the court storm.
It had been a ritual for K-State students to spill out of the student section and joyously jump on the midcourt Powercat while celebrating with the team. The Big 12 is cracking down on the practice, and Kansas State’s 0-7 record against ranked teams this season made it a moot point.
Saturday would be the test. The students remained, leaping on their bleacher seats. Johnson led the team to the section, and perhaps the Wildcats have started something: players storming the students.
Kruger, who lost for the fourth straight time in Manhattan — that’s right, Hield went winless at Bramlage — watched for a moment and then headed through the tunnel as he did during his tenure as the K-State coach. Bramlage opened during that era, and in his last year, the Wildcats knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 1 Missouri, which helped them become an NCAA Tournament team with 14 losses.
A banner hangs from the Bramlage rafters honoring Kruger’s No. 12.
“A couple of our players asked me if that was my brother,” Kruger said. “It was long before them.”
But in the end Saturday, as the Wildcats celebrated, all looked familiar to the coach who’s watched from both benches.