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Final: West Virginia 71, Kansas State 68

Another second-half unraveling cost the Wildcats as they blew a 17-point lead to fall to 0-3 in Big 12 play

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at West Virginia
Nowell’s brilliant first half wasn’t enough as he and the Cats couldn’t hold on at West Virginia.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll probably see some recaps of this game praising Kansas State for its toughness in fighting hard on the road despite being without three coaches and several players.

Frankly, I’m a little bit tired of that narrative, and hopefully this team is, too. The fact is the Wildcats lost 71-68 after blowing a 17-point lead against an opponent that did not look all that great.

Maybe fatigue was a factor, but it probably shouldn’t be at this point in the season with long media timeouts and most of the regular rotation players available. Mike McGuirl and Kaosi Ezeagu might have provided a spark, and perhaps Davion Bradford and Markquis Nowell didn’t have their usual endurance coming out of COVID-19 protocols.

Still, K-State largely fell apart in the second half, and this one would have looked a lot worse without some heroic shooting by Nijel Pack, who continues to be KSU’s most consistent scorer by a wide margin. He put up a not-so-efficient 20 points on 7-of-18 shooting (6-15 from 3-point range) while trying to carry a group that went on separate field goal droughts of almost four minutes and 4:30 in the first 13 minutes of the second half.

That’s just not going to get it done on the road in Big 12 play, even after a second straight fantastic start that makes you wonder what Bruce’s assistants are doing that he couldn’t to get K-State ready to play. Then again, is it possible the Wildcats would have made better second-half adjustments to avoid the meltdowns against Texas and West Virginia if Weber and Chris Lowery were on the bench?

We may never know.

Kansas State hit four of its first six 3-pointers thanks to four different players converting. Turns out having a bunch of guys who can shoot on the floor leads to a lot more open shots, especially when you’ve got a point guard like Markquis Nowell who can draw help defenders and find teammates with pinpoint passing.

Now, we should acknowledge this West Virginia defense is one of the weakest we’ve ever seen from Bob Huggins, and they looked especially lethargic in the first half Saturday. Still, credit the Cats for taking advantage as they hit 9 of 19 threes to take a 40-27 lead into halftime.

The defense was fairly solid as well, with Carlton Linguard continuing to do a nice job inside and the guards keeping some solid pressure on the Mountaineers. At one point K-State led 23-6 following a dunk by Davion Bradford, whose somewhat limited presence off the bench was still a pleasant surprise since it was assumed he would still be out.

A quick 6-0 run before Nijel Pack’s second three helped West Virginia briefly cut the lead to single digits, and they got within five after five straight points by Kobe Johnson. Fortunately, Mark Smith responded by knocking down a three, one of three he hit on the way to 14 points.

Sadly, those threes stopped falling in the second half for Wildcats not named Nijel. Layups weren’t consistently going down either, leaving K-State mostly helpless to stop West Virginia’s scoring runs.

Meanwhile, the offense became a bit stagnant, and it’s worth pointing out the referees’ eageness to call offensive fouls seemed to limit Nowell’s aggressiveness significantly. After scoring 8 points and dishing out 8 assists in the first half, he finished with just 10 and 10.

The Mountaineers started shooting better and drawing energy from that offense, quickly closing the gap to 42-37 before the first media timeout. Three easy buckets from Smith and Ish Massoud kept K-State in front for a bit longer, but WVU finally tied things up at 50 on a Sean McNeil layup.

He followed that with a 3-pointer to give the Mountaineers a brief lead before Pack’s three, but he didn’t get a lot of help offensively the rest of the way. West Virginia’s 8-0 run put them in control before yet another Pack three gave K-State a much-needed breath of life.

Selton Miguel made the brilliant decision to pass up an open three and go to the rim for a layup, cutting West Virginia’s lead to 62-60. Once again, McNeil found the answer with the Mountaineers’ seventh and final three, then Pack hit a three followed by Bradford missing a chance to tie at the rim, which was basically a microcosm of the whole second half.

An impressive Ish Massoud 3-pointer from the baseline with five seconds left gave K-State a chance, but Nowell’s running jumper from about 30 feet out at the buzzer came up short. Kansas State finished the game just 13 of 34 from 3-point range, which is probably too many shots for this team from beyond the arc.

In the end, it’s yet another missed opportunity that drops K-State to 0-3 in Big 12 play for the second time in three years (the Cats were fortunate enough to start against Iowa State last season).

Three in the key

  1. Linguard lift. We have to give some credit to Carlton Linguard, who had barely played before being forced into the starting lineup against Texas on Tuesday. He’s responded incredibly well in 27 minutes of action, scoring four points (all against UT) and grabbing seven rebounds while doing a decent job defensively, highlighted by four blocks. He’s probably not going to be a better option than Bradford or Ezeagu anytime soon, but it’s nice to know K-State has someone else capable when those two are struggling or get into foul trouble.
  2. Make the easy ones. This is probably going to sound like a broken record, but so many of Kansas State’s problems on offense would be fixed if the Cats could just finish a little better around the basket. West Virginia’s official stats said K-State made only 6 of 20 layups, but they did make 5 of 5 dunks, so, progress? The most alarming development has been Bradford’s inability to finish strong, something he seemed to have figured out by the end of last season. More than once the guards got a little out-of-control and put up some wild shots, which is something that could be improved as well.
  3. Must win time. If Kansas State wants to have any shot at a postseason, it’s time to start winning. Fortunately, the next week offers a couple of potentially good chances. Of course, there are no easy games in the Big 12, but TCU and Texas Tech without its top two scorers, both at Bramlage, feel like winnable games. That’s especially true if K-State gets back to full strength. But K-State absolutely needs to take advantage now, since the January Big 12 schedule ends with the brutal stretch of at No. 14 Texas, No. 6 KU at home and at No. 1 Baylor.