Kansas State fell nine points behind Texas in Austin Tuesday night, but hung tough and found a way to eke out a 66-65 road upset against No. 23 Texas in a spirited Erwin Events Center.
A hallmark of Bruce Weber’s tenure at K-State (10-7, 2-4 Big 12) has been that even in down seasons, his teams manage to beat at least one Top-25 opponent. But after handling No. 19 Texas Tech at home on Saturday, outlasting a talented 23rd-ranked Texas (13-5, 3-3) team on the road could suggest that the 2021-2022 Wildcats may not be destined for a down season, despite early losses in conference play.
Time will tell, of course. The Wildcats dug an 0-4 hole in conference play and have only dug halfway back to the break-even point. But they were competitive in all those losses while a litany of COVID-induced circumstances militated against them. Now at full strength, seasoned and steeled by those close but disappointing outcomes, the Cats seem to be putting something positive together.
This one was tense. K-State jumped to an early 6-5 lead behind three buckets from senior transfer Mark Smith. But a flagrant-1 foul on Davion Bradford (his second in as many games for contacting an opponent’s face with a high arm) jump-started Texas into an 11-2 run. The Longhorns got two buckets each from Andrew Jones and Devin Askew During the surge. They opened the game making and incredible 8 of their first 9 field goal attempts and 5 of 6 free throws. K-State could easily have wilted.
But after Courtney Ramey put the Longhorns up 17-8, the Texas run was halted on a jumper by—who else?—Smith. Texas would hold two more nine-point advantages before the Cats started reeling them back in.
Throughout the first half, K-State was intent on driving down the lane. Texas chose to defend the roll man and force the ball-handler to score through pressure. They blocked three attempts at the rim and forced shot changes on others. But the Wildcats stuck to the plan. Mike McGuirl converted two free throws. Smith made a layup for his tenth point of the half, and McGuirl and Selton Miguel each made layups.
Unfortunately, Texas converted enough free throws (a running theme of the game) to keep K-State from surging ahead. The Cats cut the deficit briefly to 2 before heading to the locker room down 35-31 at the break. K-State had shot a frigid 2-10 from three-point range, had allowed Texas to shoot nearly 48% from the field, and had been outscored 16-5 at the free throw line. Texas led for over 18 minutes of the half, and the Cats had led for only nine seconds. Being within 4 seemed improbable. And also, something like a suggestion that the Cats would find a way to win.
Find a way, they did.
After the break Smith picked up where he left off, driving for a lay-up and draining a three-pointer to get K-State within two, 40-38. Nijel Pack put a charge into the attack at the 13:01 mark. His three-point bucket gave K-State its first lead since early in the game. Smith stretched it to three points with another driving lay-up. After a 5-0 burst by UT’s Marcus Carr yielded the lead back to Texas, Mike McGuirl swished a three-pointer off a Pack assist. Then Pack drilled a pull-up jumper to put K-State back up by three, 52-49.
Carr was incredible for Texas, scoring his team’s next 11 points and staking the Horns to a 62-58 advantage with 5:26 to play. But K-State whittled it away again. Smith hit two free throws to give him 22 points on the night and to cut the deficit to two. After Carr went 1-of-2 at the line, a Timmy Allen lay-up gave Texas a five-point lead, but the Cats would not yield.
Pack scored a jumper, and two rare free throw misses by Allen opened the door for K-State. Markquis Nowell drew a foul and made both free throws, cutting the deficit to 1. Mike McGuirl walled up beautifully to force a difficult step-back attempt by Andrew Jones, and Miguel secured the rebound.
At the other end, Nowell split the defense and found Pack cutting down the center of the lane for a lay-up and a 66-65 K-State lead. 1:13 showed on the clock. K-State would not score again. But it did not matter.
K-State’s perimeter defenders—notably Miguel, McGuirl and Pack—played superb defense to close the game. They forced Ramey into a difficult jump shot, and Miguel cleared the rebound with 39 seconds to play and K-State still clinging to its one-point advantage. At the offensive end, when Nowell missed a contested layup near the end of the shot clock, and Miguel just missed securing the rebound with 12 seconds to play, an uncomfortable sense of deja vu undoubtedly settled over many K-State fans.
But the Wildcats bowed up on defense again, limiting Carr to a contested jump-shot near the baseline that just missed. Mark Smith grabbed the weakside rebound, and time expired before Texas could foul.
Against a team that had converted an impressive array of turnaround jump shots throughout the game, K-State made its one-point lead stand up over the final 1:13 and left Austin with its second consecutive win over a ranked Big 12 Opponent, 66-65.
Smith led K-State with 22 points and 8 rebounds. Pack scored 16, and McGuirl contributed 13 off the bench. The Wildcats shot 25-54 (46.3%) from the field, including 7-18 (38.9%) from three-point range. If they had lost the game, a scoring disparity at the free throw stripe would have been a major culprit, as the Cats were only 7-18, while Texas made 21-26.
Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen were the only Longhorns to reach double figures, with 25 and 15 points, respectively. Texas was 4-17 (23.5%) from outside.
Three in the Key
- Road wins are always special. Road wins in hostile arenas, against ranked opponents, after your team seemed to be teetering on the edge of the abyss, mean that much more. We will never know whether some of those early, close conference losses would have turned in the Wildcats’ favor if they had been played with a full roster of players and coaches. And nothing can be done about any of those games now. But at 0-4 on the conference season and staring at a gauntlet of four straight games against ranked teams, the best possible outcome for the first two was to find a way to win them both. And the Cats found a way. No. 7 and hated rival Kansas comes to Bramlage on Saturday. K-State can focus on that game with renewed confidence after closing out consecutive ranked opponents to rise seemingly from the dead.
- Where would K-State be without Mark Smith? And why, oh why, couldn’t Coach Weber have found a way to get him to Manhattan sooner? Smith kept K-State in the game almost by himself early, and he spread his contributions out through the game, whenever his team needed him to make a play. The fifth-year senior played 34 minutes and again demonstrated toughness and efficiency that imparted confidence to the rest of the team. The only disappointment? He got a slow start on the rebounding and did not quite reach another double-double. This time (unlike at Oklahoma) at least the team did not waste his stellar effort.
- Was Nowell the difference? The energetic point guard and initiator did not suit up when K-State built (but could not hold) a lead against Texas in Bramlage on January 4. Back for the rematch, foul trouble plagued Nowell, and Texas was intent on cutting off driving and passing lanes. He only scored four points, while committing 4 fouls and 4 turnovers. But his drive and pass to Pack to give K-State its final bucket (and the final score) wound up being the deciding play of the game. K-State can be very good when all of Nowell, Smith and Pack are at their best. Tonight they won against a quality opponent when the opposition neutralized the tough point guard for much of the night, but he kept plugging along and found a way to make a winning play late.
They-who-shall-not-be-named. Saturday, January 22 at 3:00 p.m. in Manhattan.