Kansas State found some offense, played good defense for large portions of the game, and got big games from its two veteran leaders Sunday against Tulsa.
Most importantly, though, those two stepped up and made some key plays down the stretch to help the Wildcats win 69-67 at Bramlage Coliseum.* Xavier Sneed got a steal and hit a jumper (let’s not talk about the missed free throw that could have sealed it), then Cartier Diarra hit what ended up being the game-winner on a tough stepback 3-pointer with 21.9 seconds left.
*A quick note: This recap will be much more enjoyable if we overlook the fact that Kansas State should not have needed clutch shots at the end to beat Tulsa (KenPom 119) so we’re not going to worry about that minor detail.
Diarra ended up with 7 assists and a career-high 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc. Sneed put up 18 points on not-as-great (6-of-15) shooting, but he made up for it by adding 6 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks and 2 assists.
The win improved K-State’s record in games decided by 7 points or less to 2-3, with the other win coming at UNLV a long time ago. Much like that game, the Cats succeeded despite shooting terribly (38%) and getting off to a pretty terrible start. Whatever works.
Kansas State looked well on its way to losing a third straight game to Tulsa early, thanks to a lackluster defense and poor shooting from a rushed offense. The Golden Hurricane found its way inside with relative ease and opened up a 14-3 lead as the Wildcats missed their first seven 3-pointers.
Defensive rebounds looked difficult to come by. Tulsa’a zone appeared to be as effective as many zones have been. Even when Xavier Sneed finally ended that 3-point drought and earned a foul, he missed a free throw, then got his own rebound and committed a turnover that led to a Tulsa basket. Things looked very grim.
Then Cartier Diarra got extremely hot, and things changed in a hurry. Defensive energy returned while the junior guard hit a 3-pointer to spark an 8-2 run to cut Tulsa’s lead to 24-19, and another deep three preceded a Sneed dunk and steal to bring Kansas State within one.
Brandon Rachal continued to cause some problems with his versatility on the way to a team-high 9 first-half points, but mostly the defense stymied Tulsa and Diarra would not be stopped. He hit 5-of-7 (!) 3-pointers in the first half, including a heat check stepback to give KSU its first lead at 31-29 with 3:34 to play before halftime.
In case you were wondering how ridiculous that is, Diarra tried it again a few possessions later and threw up an airball. But don’t worry, because Kansas State got the rebound and eventually found Diarra for a spot-up trey, which he buried, of course.
Even David Sloan got in on the action with just his fourth 3-pointer of the year as the Wildcats hit 8 of their last 13 to close out the half up 40-34. Unfortunately that was also their total first-half shooting from the free throw line, but hey, you can’t have it all.
K-State’s 3-point shooting reverted back to form with six straight misses to start the second half, including wide open looks for Carti and X. At the other end, Tulsa got 9 points in the first five and a half minutes from a goofy long-haired white dude from Little Rock named Lawson Korita to take a 46-45 lead.
From there, things went back-and-forth for a while, and K-State stayed afloat with the help of back-to-back threes from Diarra and McGuirl. Makol Mawien even reminded us he can be a threat offensively, but usually only if you give him the ball in a one-on-one situation very close to the basket.
The good version of freshman DeJuan Gordon briefly made an appearance at an opportune time, first with a tip-in to put KSU ahead 64-61 and then with a nice block on Korita’s 3-point attempt. Sadly, that was for naught as Levi Stockard bailed out Jeriah Horne on a desperation 3 from the corner with the shot clock running down, and he took advantage of an admittedly weak foul call by hitting all 3 free throws to put Tulsa ahead with 2:23 left.
That was when Diarra came back from more than three minutes on the bench with four fouls, and when he immediately threw a pass out-of-bounds there was surely a sense of “here we go again.” Thankfully, he would recover and K-State’s defense went into lockdown mode, capped off by a Mawien block on a layup just before the final buzzer.
Three in the key
1. Sneed was attacking the basket again. Although he was perhaps not as successful as the Cats would like, it’s always encouraging to see X trying to get to the rim instead of settling for jumpers. That’s especially true when he hits all five of his free throws, which is important to offset the terrible free throw shooting (7-of-15) from everyone else. Sneed also turned in a great defensive effort and was rewarded with 39 minutes of playing time, which probably would have been 40 if he hadn’t gone the sideline briefly to address what appeared to be a hamstring issue.
2. The Cats weren’t quite at full strength. Speaking of injuries, Montavious Murphy appeared to tweak his leg a couple times and never really go in rhythm, finishing with just 5 points and 6 rebounds. Antonio Gordon was also noticeably absent due to the flu, and K-State could have used his help to nullify Tulsa’s interior presence. Nonetheless, the Cats survived lots of Levi Stockard with 3 fouls and 1 rebound (how?) thanks in large part to Mawien not picking up his first foul until early in the second half. He ended up posting a solid stat line of 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.
3. Now things get a lot tougher. Big 12 play begins next Saturday at 8-3 Oklahoma, and I don’t need to tell anyone (least of all the players and coaches) that this team needs to play much better to be competitive. Better consistency defensively is an absolute must, and it sure would be nice if K-State could learn some things about shot selection from when the ball was going in the basket tonight compared to when it wasn’t. More production from the post players would be extremely helpful, but short of that Diarra and Sneed need to keep showing a willingness to put this team on their backs. As Bruce said in his postgame interview with Bridget Howard on the court, “Hopefully this’ll be the day we start moving forward.”