Anyone hoping for a repeat of the recordbreaking, fun, remarkably high-scoring matchup between Kansas State and Texas and Austin was sorely disappointed Saturday afternoon.
Instead, we got an ugly, disjointed game full of careless turnovers, fouls and missed open shots. Even worse, the Cats blew a 14-point lead and stumbled down the stretch to lose 69-66, ending a 12-game home winning streak to start the season and sending the Cats tumbling down to third, two games behind first-place Texas.
Ish Massoud’s off-balance three didn’t even draw rim at the buzzer and while a better look would have been nice to get from a halfcourt inbounds with 5.5 seconds left, this one was lost well before that. Christian Bishop’s go-ahead layup looked far too easy and Markquis Nowell needed to do a lot better than the difficult miss and turnover he recorded on the following possession.
But it was mostly that kind of night for the heart and soul of K-State’s offense, as Nowell finished with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go with just three assists and six (!) turnovers in 38 minutes. Keyontae Johnson scored 16 points and looked pretty good when he was on the floor, but he only played 24 minutes. A far cry from Kansas State’s 116-103 win that featured 36 points from Nowell and 28 by Johnson.
KJ’s recent foul trouble hit a new low with two fouls within 51 seconds of tipoff – one questionable on the defensive end and one obvious, careless charge at the other end. Perhaps not surprisingly, some sloppy offense followed.
Fortunately, K-State’s defense drew energy from the crowd and put some good pressure on Texas, holding the Longhorns to nine points in the first ten minutes. A 6-0 run put the Wildcats up five and then Johnson came back in (Bruce Weber was appalled) to knock down a 3 and give K-State a 15-9 lead.
David N’Guessan’s fourth three of the season was a welcome surprise and Desi Sills, who scored 11 points off the bench, hit one on the next possession as Kansas State’s offense started heating up. Turnovers were still a bit of an issue, but it was nice to see a lot of guys getting involved.
Keyontae hit a layup to give the Cats a 28-14 lead and went back to the bench following his third foul less than a minute later. Fortunately, balanced scoring shared among all eight guys who saw playing time helped Kansas State overcome Johnson’s absence and uncharacteristic poor play from Nowell, while Texas generously missed several layups and committed 11 turnovers before halftime.
Two stupid turnovers to start the second half quickly turned a 36-25 lead into 36-29 before Johnson knocked down a difficult turnaround shot that no one else on the roster can make. Unfortunately, the Longhorns finally found their offensive touch and cut the lead all the way down to one.
Texas eventually even went in front for a few seconds before Ish Massoud hit another timely three to give Kansas State a 48-46 advantage. It didn’t last long as K-State couldn’t match the Longhorns’ raised defensive intensity and they kept making shots, including a Sir’Jabari Rice 3 to put Texas ahead 56-50.
Johnson kept showing why he’s a serious Big 12 POY candidate with big shot after big shot to keep the Cats close, and Nae’Qwan Tomlin had a nice dunk. The Wildcat defense found another gear at the right time, and Sills looked especially impressive defending ballhandlers.
Nowell’s jumper tied the game before Kansas State failed to secure a critical defensive rebound, allowing Rice to make one of two free throws. After Texas blew another layup (whew!) Nowell took advantage of a mismatch and hit a nice running jumper to put the Cats back in front with under a minute left.
What’s most confusing to me is why K-State seemingly didn’t even try to get Johnson a touch on either of its last two possessions. Yes, I understand that’s where Texas was expecting the ball to go, but is having him literally stand in the corner for 15 seconds really the best option? Admittedly KSU has done very well in close games up until this point, so for now I’ll keep trusting Tang.
Plus, let’s acknowledge Texas is a very talented team and playing some of the best basketball in the conference right now. They’ve won 4 straight conference games and 7 of their past 8 in league play. They’re very deep, as evidenced by five different guys in double figures, led by 14 from Rice and Bishop.
Kansas State should have a good chance to turn things around Tuesday when TCU comes to Bramlage, likely without star point guard Mike Miles and big man Eddie Lampkin. After that is the easiest road trip in the conference at last-place Texas Tech.
But with eight games left, the reality is KSU can’t afford to lose any more if they want to stay in contention for the regular season crown. That’s a big ask, even if this is the easy half of the schedule.
Three in the Key
1. Buckets for everybody - Coming into Saturday, Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell had scored 46% of K-State’s points this season, and that number rose to nearly 60% when you included Nae’Qwan Tomlin’s 10.5 points per game. So in a way it was refreshing to see eight different guys score in the first half and all eight of them finish with at least 5 points. But is that really Kansas State’s most efficient offense? Probably not. Desi Sill scoring off the bench is a huge boost, but the Cats really need more than 26 from Nowell and Johnson combined to be successful offensively.
2. Turnovers aplenty — Markquis wasn’t the only one struggling to take care of the ball on a day that featured 19 Wildcat turnovers, the highest number since they committed 20 in an 82-68 loss to TCU. Yes, the Longhorns have some serious length and athleticism on defense, but too many of these turnovers were just simple mental errors that have to be corrected. The only reason this game was close was because Texas nearly matched Kansas State’s sloppiness, committing 17 turnovers.
3. Free throw back on track — It might be a bad sign when I’m using free throws as a positive (though to be fair the defense deserves some credit for a mostly solid performance too) but after poor shooting from the stripe arguably cost K-State a win at Iowa State and then continued in a win over Florida, I wanted to mention it. Kansas State shot a very impressive 31-36 (86%) from the line at Allen Fieldhouse and knocked down 16-20 (80%) today. Special shoutout to Abayomi “Baye Baye” Iyola and Nae’Qwan Tomlin. The two bigs both went 4-for-4 for the game.