To the sheer delight of most Kansas State fans, the Wildcats took down 11th-seeded counterpart Wake Forest 95-88 on Tuesday in the First Four to win the school’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2012.
In the process, the Wildcats were tough-minded, athletic, versatile and resolute, looking like the sort of team that could well beat sixth-seeded Cincinnati when they meet on Friday in Sacramento, Calif.
K-State received the last at-large berth into the tournament but made that nothing to apologize for. It demonstrated again that it can play salty defense and execute on offense and, finally, that it can bristle in the closing moments.
The Wildcats outscored Wake Forest 42-24 in the paint, hit 66 percent of their field goals (31 of 47, including 16 of 23 in the second half) and established a lead they’d never surrender after holding the Demon Deacons to just two field goals in the first 10 minutes of the game.
This was a cumulative result, coach Bruce Weber said afterward, and his point made sense.
Starting with this: His team stayed with him, dreary as things might have looked and embattled as he might have been along the way.
“They’ve persevered, they’ve believed,” he said. “They kept the faith, and now we get to move on to Sacramento.”
So many close losses in a fierce league, including two by a total of four points against Kansas and the 51-50 loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 semifinal, were there to be drawn upon.
If only they would take advantage of the opportunity, as he wrote on a board in the locker room before the game.
The most recent lesson was the most pertinent.
Late against West Virginia, “We broke down defensively. … We got bad body language. We got tentative on offense,” he said, telling the team, “ ‘Learn from it. Now we’ve got to keep our body language. Let them be the ones to make a mistake.’ ”
And so they did, whether it was coming up with a 7-0 run when Wake Forest cut a 10-point lead to 72-70 approaching 5 minutes left or in the form of Wake’s hurried shots and an intentional foul that doused its last comeback hopes in a game it led for only 36 seconds.
In the process, Weber won his first NCAA game for K-State and improved to 12-10 overall in NCAA play.
Which will only leave some fans saying … what have you done for me lately?
Such is the strange state of affairs with K-State basketball.
Just after the loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 at the Sprint Center, senior guard Carlbe Ervin was asked about K-State’s prospects of earning an at-large berth.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “We are the most hated team in the league, the most hated team in the nation, throughout all of college basketball.”
But enough about some of K-State’s own fans …
Mostly, we jest.
The truth is, though, that a vocal faction that seems only to have grown over the years resented and rejected Weber from the start and would rather see him lose and be ousted than for him to thrive and survive.
Burn the village in order to save it, and all that — an apparently moot point for the moment with athletic director John Currie having departed for Tennessee and his replacement weeks, if not months, away.
More than a few fans on social media lamented that the Wildcats salvaged a spot in the tournament, amplifying this anecdotal nugget from last season:
A game after K-State beat then-No. 1 Oklahoma, your network wi-fi options at Bramlage Coliseum included “Fire Bruce” and a seemingly similar sentiment with a profanity attached.
The original sin Weber continues to pay for was being Currie’s choice to replace the charismatic and volatile Frank Martin, who left for South Carolina amid what Martin considered intrusions by Currie as Currie tried to reel him in.
So he’s not Martin … hasn’t fared anywhere near as well as Martin at K-State … and has a shrill voice — the result of surgery to remove polyps from his throat as a child — that is part of what annoys some about him.
What number of tournament wins would change that?
If you’d rather hold on to that feeling that he’s not your guy than anything else, maybe none is the real answer.
Not that Weber hasn’t earned valid criticism, including the lapses in passion in his team that arose all too often this season.
This campaign also has provided some fine examples of the exasperating one-step-up, two-step-back do-si-do that leaves to interpretation — or predisposition — any assessment of the program.
The Wildcats lost eight of 10 only a few weeks ago, culminating with a 30-point loss to a bad Oklahoma team that left them 6-10 in Big 12 play and suggested it was curtains for Weber.
But they purged that debacle and won three in a row, including a Big 12 tournament victory over Baylor that evidently was crucial in their NCAA berth.
And frustrating as their Big 12 semifinal loss to West Virginia was, especially after the mangled final possession, it wasn’t for any lack of fire as the Wildcats harassed the Mountaineers into 26.7 percent shooting (16 of 60).
No one who watched the game Tuesday would have found the intensity wanting, either.
The Wildcats smothered the Demon Deacons in the first half, outscoring them 24-6 in the paint and outrebounding them 15-10 to take a 40-36 lead into the intermission.
The flip side of that, though, was 15 first-half fouls, some more earned than others, but enough to put Wake on the line 18 times for 17 made free throws that kept it tighter than it should have been.
K-State ramped it up early in the second half, with a boost from guard Kamau Stokes, who hit two quick three-pointers and three free throws after luring a foul as the Wildcats surged ahead 57-47.
Wake awoke to cut it to a two-point game, but Stokes hit two three-pointers around three Wesley Iwundu free throws to make it 84-75 with just under 3 minutes left.
This time, K-State made the opponent wilt down the stretch:
Bryant Crawford’s intentional foul with 1 minute 43 seconds left resulted in two Stokes free throws and a layup by D.J. Johnson on the ensuing possession to make it 88-79 with 1:20 left to essentially seal it.
Iwundu led K-State with 24 points, and Stokes had 22 — including 19 in the second half. Johnson made eight of his nine field goal attempts, blocked three shots and had six of K-State’s rebounds as the Wildcats outrebounded Wake 29-21.
All in all, it made for a win that for most should validate Weber’s impact on the program … at least until Friday.