Playing down one star, and with another limited by injury, the Kansas State Wildcats still played strong in front of a raucous home crowd, but it wasn’t quite enough as the Cats fell to the Marquette Golden Eagles 64-63 on Wednesday night in Bramlage Coliseum. With the loss, the Wildcats fell to 5-3 on the season, while the Golden Eagles improved to 8-2.
Things actually started out mostly well for the Wildcats, as K-State jumped out of the gate early with good defensive pressure and a 5-0 lead at just over two minutes into the game. But missed easy buckets were a problem, and they would be for much of the game, and allowed the Eagles to claw back. The Wildcats also looked unfocused after the first round of substitutions, especially Davion Bradford, who looked weak early as he continues to work his way back from a preseason bout with pneumonia.
It was back and forth throughout the first quarter, with the Wildcats obtaining their largest lead of the game at 21-15 on a 3-point make from Ish Massoud at the 7:12 mark before Marquette quickly recovered. With under 30 seconds left in the half, the Wildcats pulled ahead on a three by Markquis Nowell, but then had a defensive breakdown on the other end (aided by a possible uncalled travel) and allowed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Marquette’s Justin Lewis to send the teams to the break with a 31-30 Marquette lead. It proved to be the difference in the game.
Out of halftime, the Wildcats again found success, pushing again to a six-point lead at 37-31, and then again 39-33 and finally 41-35, thanks to strong defensive pressure and good rebounding. But the pesky Eagles wouldn’t go away, and while the Cats continued to hold the lead for another few minutes of game time, it was tenuous, and the Eagles tied the game several times before finally taking over on a morale-tamping dunk just before the 10-minute mark by Marquette’s Olivier-Maxence Prosper to make the score 52-50. It was a lead the Eagles wouldn’t give away again.
Once down, the Wildcats quickly resorted to bad shots and 3-point attempts, looking like they were trying to overcome a double-digit deficit late, instead of the single-digit deficit in the middle of the half. Marquette pushed their lead out to six twice, 56-50 then 58-52, before pushing out to a game-high seven at 61-54 on a 3-point make by Kam Jones that really felt like it might be the dagger that would end K-States hopes.
But then the Cats came alive after they called a timeout, and a make at the basket by Davion Bradford, who seemed to rediscover his aggressiveness in the second half, coupled with ramped up defensive pressure, kept the game from being completely over. The Cats went on a 6-0 run to bring the game to 61-60, but then gave up another 3-point basket to Kam Jones with just over 30 seconds to play. Mike McGuirl hit an answer 3 just 13 seconds later to set the score at 64-63 with time left to make one more attempt. Three quick fouls by the Cats finally put Marquette in the bonus (the Cats only had 9 fouls all game, and three came in those closing seconds; but it was clean all around, and the Golden Eagles only committed 12 total for the game). And then Tyler Kolek stepped up to the line and missed the front end of the 1-and-1, and after Kaosi Ezeagu picked up the rebound it appeared like the Cats might just pull it out. But a scrambled final possession ended when Ish Massoud attempted to drive the baseline and go under the basket for the shot, only to get blocked from behind as time expired.
Really, across the board, the two teams were fairly even. Marquette had one more made field goal, and five more made 3s than the Cats, but K-State made 6 more free throws. The Cats as a team shot 70% from the charity stripe, but two misses by Mark Smith late in the game felt huge in the moment.
The three transfers played very well, with Mark Smith leading all scorers with 17 points, adding 8 rebounds as well. Markquis Nowell nearly stole the show again, with a double-double on the night with 11 points and 11 assists, and a near-triple double as he also had 8 rebounds, but he shot a freezing cold 14% from deep, making just one of his 7 attempts from long range. Ish Massoud was the only other Wildcat in double figures with 16 points, adding 6 rebounds as well. Nijel Pack was again held out as he continues to recover from a concussion, and Selton Miguel didn’t start and played limited minutes after suffering a leg injury earlier this week.
All is not lost, though. After a couple years of trying and failing, Bruce Weber finally seems to have enough of the right pieces in place for a solid team. And they seem to be figuring things out, even if that process isn’t quite yet compete. But there is still the other side to that. To put it succinctly (h/t to Big E), the Wildcats are good enough to win, but bad enough to play their way out of it.
Next up for the Wildcats is another home tilt, as they welcome in the Phoenix of Green Bay. The Phoenix start a two-game KC/KS road trip this Friday as they take on Kansas City (UMKC) before heading west on I-70.