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Too Little Late: No. 14 Illinois 72, Kansas State 64

A game effort was not enough to win the game. Again.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Kansas State
Kofi who? Markquis Nowell doesn’t care.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State (2-2) hung around with No. 14 Illinois (3-2) most of the evening in the third-place game of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, and even held a three-point lead early in the second half. But a 12-3 run gave the Ilini a 53-45 advantage midway through the period, and K-State could never quite make it a single possession contest again, as they fell 72-64.

Down 68-55 with only 4:15 to play, K-State got a long two-point bucket from Luke Kasubke, followed by a traditional 3-point play, two Nowell free throws and two more from Nijel Pack to close within 68-62 with 2:15 remaining. But they could not get enough shots to fall down the stretch to pull off the upset.

The Cats kept the game close most of the evening by taking care of the basketball. They committed only four turnovers in the contest, while forcing the Illini into 18. That led to a 23-3 K-State advantage in points off turnovers. A margin like that normally guarantees victory, right? So, what happened?

If the Wildcats stayed in the game by taking care of the basketball, they lost the game by missing shots and losing track of stationary shooters. Illinois wing Alfonso Plummer scored all of his 21 points on three-point makes, hitting 7 of his 9 attempts from deep. Though at least one of those shots was an ill-advised force from the corner early in a possession when his team was trying to burn time, most were wide open drains from the wing.

How did he get so open? Because the Wildcats were obsessed with collapsing on Big 10 preseason Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn. That did not work either, as the powerful 7-foot post poured in a game-high 23 points, on 8-10 shooting. Cockburn had an odd triple-double, of sorts, as he grabbed 13 rebounds and was fouled a staggering 12 times.

Taking care of the basketball is welcome attention to detail. The more important facet of offense, of course, is putting the ball through the net. K-State was only 25-65 (38.5%) overall, and 6-21 (28.6%) from three-point range. Illinois shot 25-48 (52.1%) overall and 12-26 (46.2%) from outside. That shooting disparity, along with a 42-26 chasm of a deficit in rebounds, explains the loss. In their attempt to close the gap late, the Cats missed a couple of shots at the rim that could have really tightened up the game. A play here, a mistake there. That’s the margin that decides it, all too often.

Not everything was complaint fuel, though. Arkansas-Little Rock transfer Markquis Nowell scored 11 of his team-best 19 points in the first half, keeping K-State at the Illinis’ heels. The smallest guy on the roster also led K-State in rebounds, with six. Good for him. But the bigs should make it a point of pride never to let that happen again.

Nijel Pack was second in scoring with 15 points and was central to K-State grabbing its brief lead. He also stole a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk, just to show us he can do it.

Ismael Massoud made 3 of 5 three-point attempts and missed the other two so badly they should have counted double. He finished with 13 points in a team-high 31 minutes of playing time. Defensively, he struggled with the physicality of the game. It is clear Ish will be a project on that end of the floor. He seems willing. Just not polished, yet.

Somehow, Selton Miguel was held scoreless, though he did contribute 4 assists. Mike McGuirl scored 5 on 2-8 shooting, as he continues to seek his offensive legs.

Three in the Key

  1. This tournament performance was about what we expected—maybe even a smidge better. The field coming into the Hall of Fame Classic looked daunting to the inexperienced K-State team. Though it looked rough early against the Razorbacks, they did not get rolled. After fighting back Monday night to make No. 13 Arkansas work to notch a victory, the Cats backed the effort up with a game they were just a few plays short of winning against No. 14 Illinois. Moral victories don’t count. But maybe we are seeing that with some seasoning and experience like they got in Kansas City, Bruce’s bunch may figure out a way to get past some of the better teams ahead on the schedule. They will have ample opportunities. But Big 12 looks absolutely stacked this year.
  2. Nowell is also turning out to be about what we expected. He is equal parts energy, drive, and fearlessness. His only three-point make tonight was one of those shots from so far out that the player knows he dares not miss it, lest he immediately find himself holding down a folding chair on the sidelines. He drained it. But he missed his next four. He also broke down defenders and challenged much bigger players repeatedly on his way to 19 points. He is fun to watch. Occasionally frustrating. But fun. He also appears to make this team better, even with the occasional bout of overconfidence.
  3. K-State shot 88.9% (8-9) from the free throw line. For the season the Cats are making over 75% of their charity attempts. It may not be exciting, but that is a welcome and long-overdue improvement in one of the important “little” things that Coach Weber’s teams have not traditionally done well.

Next Game

The Cats are off for Thanksgiving and will next play at 4:00 Sunday, November 28 against North Dakota in Bramlage Coliseum.