“Shooters Shoot,” said Kamau Stokes, sitting in as color analyst on the K-State Sports Radio Network while the regular team traveled home in reverie from the Big 12 Football Championship.
And so it was that Markquis Nowell, who had missed all five of his previous three-point attempts and all but one of his field goals overall, launched a deep attempt from the right wing with 54 seconds remaining to break a 50-50 tie and vault the Kansas State Wildcats (7-1) to a 55-50 win over the visiting Wichita State Shockers (4-4).
For much of the evening, a Wildcat win seemed improbable. Riding the vibes of the football team’s inspired performance in Arlington earlier in the day, K-State started hot, scoring the game’s first six point. But an 11-0 run by the Shockers put the Wildcats in chase mode, where they would toil for most of the night.
WSU moved the ball, outhustled the Wildcats for loose balls and rebounds and, most importantly, made shots. The visitors hit three of their first four 3-point attempts, but after Nae’Qwan hit two early, the Cats could not find the bottom of the net from outside the rest of the half, making only 2 of 11.
K-State would eventually find its footing by feeding the ball to Keyontae Johnson in the high post against the Shockers’ zone defense. Johnson’s second bucket evened the score at 17 apiece, but on the other end of the floor, he picked up his second foul. Though he politicked to remain in the game, Coach Tang applied the lessons learned in the Caymans and called Keyontae to the bench.
WSU responded with a 9-2 run to build a 26-19 lead with 6:32 to play in the half. At that point, Tang began playing offense-for-defense, subbing Johnson in and out. The ploy worked, as the Cats pulled back within 32-29 at the break. They caught a break when a circus heave from outside the right arc went in after the buzzer, but was waved off after review for leaving the shooter’s hand a tiny fraction of a second after the buzzer.
The offensive struggles did not end for K-State at halftime, unfortunately, yet they found a way to win. How? By putting on a defensive display comparable to the football team’s historic goal line stand at the Jerry Dome. After WSU’s Gus Okafor swished a so-deep-you-don’t-guard-it three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 10:02 to play, Wichita State made only one shot from the field the rest of the way. That jumper by Craig Porter Jr. gave Wichita State a 50-49 lead with 2:13 remaining in the contest.
The Shockers would not score again.
In what turned out to be an enormously consequential play, Desi Sills chased down Shammah Scott, who had stolen the ball above the key and seemed destined for an easy lay-in. But Sills never gave up on the play, sprinting back and elevating for a textbook block of the layup attempt. That hustle and athleticism kept the Cats within one at a crucial and decisive juncture of the game.
A moment later, Nowell pushed the pace off a Tomlin rebound an earned free throws on a layup attempt. He sank one of two (yes, even free throw shooting was a struggle for K-State) to knot the score at 50.
After Nowell’s clutch three gave the Wildcats a 53-50 lead on the next possession, he pressured WSU’s Scott near the left corner. Scott lost the ball out of bounds. Initially, possession was awarded to the Shockers. But review showed that Scott had touched the ball last, and the call was reversed.
WSU would have one last chance after Sills missed a three-point attempt with 13 seconds to play. The Shockers misplayed the ball above the arc and threw it out of bounds. Nowell made two free throws for the final 55-50 margin.
Though he had to sit for a time with foul trouble, Keyontae Johnson led all scorers with 17 points. He shot 7-14 from the floor, 0-2 from three-point range, and was an uncharacteristic 3-6 from the free throw line.
Tomlin, who had been scoreless the last two games, got K-State started with some aggressive offense and finished with 14 points, six rebounds, and two blocks. Nowell had 11 points and 7 assists.
Craig Porter Jr. was the only Shocker who reached double figures, scoring 11. After shooting 54.5% (12-22) from the field in the first half, WSU managed only 25.9% (7-27) in the second.
K-State was 19-53 (35.8%) for the game, including 4-20 (20%) from outside, coincidentally, the exact shooting performance that caused the Cats to fall short against Butler Wednesday evening. The Wildcats were 13-21 (61.9%) from the free throw line. With the aid of the defensive effort over the last ten minutes of the game, it was just enough.
It is perhaps fitting that Wichita State’s final possession ended on an inexplicable turnover. The Shockers will surely consider their 16 giveaways (against only 8 by the usually turnover-prone Wildcats) to be the key stat of the game.
Three in the Key
- We wondered how Tang’s Gang would respond after suffering its first loss of the season Wednesday night. The answer was decidedly mixed. The team started hot, faded, then had to fight from behind nearly the entire way. K-State only led for 6:53 of game time and squandered its largest lead of the night before the first media timeout. Not only was the offense ragged, the defense was subpar, and the effort was, at times, wretched. Fortunately, the team finally found its top gear defensively and rode that effort to a hard-fought victory in a game where the opponent looked like the better team over long stretches of play. Kudos to the team and the staff for finding a way to win when they were less than their best.
- After Wednesday’s loss, in which Keyontae Johnson shot a perfect 9 of 9 from the floor, Coach Tang expressed disappointment that his team did not find a way to get the talented senior more shots. Johnson was not perfect against Wichita and even missed a dunk and a layup. But he was still the best, most dangerous option in the Wildcat offense, and probably the only one for whom a 7-14 performance would feel like an “off” night.
- This series should be renewed in perpetuity. Next season’s edition will be at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City. After that, the contract is up. It was absurd not to play the third D-1 school in the state for 18 years before last season. Tonight’s outcome pushes K-State’s all-time advantage over the Shockers to 22-11. The competition is good, and a loss to WSU over the past decade or so would certainly not have been a “bad” loss. Moreover, the games have been fun. The self-anointed “flagship school” of the state, by the way, has not played WSU outside of the NCAA tournament since 1993, a game it won 103-54. While K-State now holds a 4-game winning streak over the Shockers, KU actually lost its last game to them, a 78-65 defeat in the 2 vs. 7 round of the 2015 NCAA tournament in Omaha. You’d expect they would like to end that. But, you’d apparently be wrong. We usually wouldn’t mention those guys, of course. But it’s been a fun day; might as well cap it off right.
K-State plays Abilene Christian at 7 p.m. CST Tuesday, December 6.