Kansas State stars Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell each scored 24 points (with Nowell scoring all of his in the second half), but miscues and a free throw disparity ruined the day for the Wildcats (23-8, 11-7 Big 12), as they fell 89-81 to the Mountaineers in Morgantown.
No. 11 K-State raced to an 8-0 lead before ESPN+ could even figure out how to put a scoreboard on the screen. and the Cats led through the first five minutes before West Virginia (18-13, 7-11) stopped turning the ball over and made shots to take a brief 14-13 lead. But stifling defense held the ‘Eeers scoreless over for over four minutes, as the Cats ran off an 11-0 surge to take a 24-14 advantage midway through the first half. The outlook appeared rosy for Wildcat fans.
Unfortunately, the K-State offense would stagnate after the big run, putting in only 13 more points in the half, while West Virginia exploited turnovers and defensive breakdowns to end the period on a 25-13 run to lead 39-37 at intermission. With Nowell held scoreless, and having committed a dozen first half turnovers, the Wildcats were fortunate to be down only 2. The outlook still appeared hopeful.
Unfortunately, things did not improve after halftime. West Virginia quickly stretched its lead to 48-41, and though the Cats got within 3 or 4 points on several occasions, an Erik Stevenson three-pointer with 8:49 to play gave West Virginia its first double-digit lead, at 69-59 with 8:49 to play.
Though the K-State defense briefly tightened up again, holding West Virginia to three points over the next three minutes, the Wildcats only managed 5 of their own, to be down 8 with just under six minutes to play. What seemed like a manageable margin quickly grew unmanageable, however.
West Virginia’s Kedrian Johnson made two free throws. K-State missed a jumper. West Virginia’s Joe Touissant made a layup. K-State missed a three-point jumper. West Virginia’s Emmet Matthews Jr. made two free throws. Suddenly, the margin was 14, 78-64, with just over five to play.
Nowell tried to keep K-State in it with three-pointers and free throws, but the Cats could not prevent the Mountaineers from scoring in the paint and at the line, and time ran out on any chance at a comeback.
Nowell made 6 of 12 three-point attempts, but only shot 7-20 overall. He also had 8 assists 6 steals, and 4 rebounds, but an unsightly 6 turnovers, part of a 20-giveaway day for the Cats.
To go along with his 24-point outburst, Johnson tied Tykei Green for the team lead with 6 rebounds, and the Cats actually out-rebounded the ‘Eers 33-29. Johnson, for his part, shot 10-21, including 4-9 from outside the arc, and committed only 1 turnover.
Cam Carter, the third double-figure scorer for the Wildcats with 13, was guilty of 5 turnovers on the day.
The Wildcat turnovers led to a 30-20 advantage for West Virginia in fastbreak points, though only a narrow 23-20 disparity in points off turnovers (West Virginia turned it over 16 times, themselves).
The other large disparity of the game was in free throw attempts, where West Virginia got 25 tries (making 22) to K-State’s 12 (making 9). K-State was whistled for 23 fouls. West Virginia, long known for its pristine and artful defensive style, was called for 14. (Yes, even Sheldon Cooper would recognize that as sarcasm.)
K-State shot 30-67 (44.8%), including 12-28 (42.9%) from three-point range. West Virginia eclipsed 50%, making 30 of 59 attempts, but only 31.8% (7-22) from deep. Their 22-25 mark at the free throw line was good for 88% and was the difference (plus 5) in the game.
Three West Virginia players scored more than 20 points, led by Erik Stevenson, who had 27. Remarkably, none of his points came from the free throw line. Kedria Johnson, who was only 4-13 from the field, wound up with 23 points, 14 of which came via charity makes.
Three in the Key
- A week ago, Coach Tang said he had told the team they would have to stare adversity in the face, and then slap the crap out of it. After a quick start today, adversity mounted against the Cats on the road. Though they punched back once and built a 10-point advantage, they could not overcome the combined result of their own mistakes and head-scratching inconsistency that let muggings and car crashes in the lane go ignored, while phantom bumps resulted in treks to the free throw line for the opponent. In the end, K-State was unable to reign in its own wildness or adjust to the way the game was being called. The adversity that they caused themselves wound up being the biggest adversary.
- Defensive lapses were a culprit, as well. In spite of 20 empty possessions, the Cats managed to put up 81 points on the road against a team that plays hardcourt rugby. Normally, that would be more than enough to win. Lacking Desi Sills, who sadly missed the game to attend the funeral of a family member, may explain part of the problem. And certainly, the Wildcats could have used his toughness against the physical Mountaineers. Traveling on two days’ rest to play a home team after four days off is a tough mission, too. But those are all just excuses. For much of the first half, it was clear this was a game K-State could have won. Ask the guys, and they would likely tell you they should have won it.
- In the end, it probably makes little difference. K-State was an underdog in this road game, and certainly the outcome held greater significance for West Virginia, which likely cemented and NCAA tournament invitation with the win. Coupled with the unexpected and somewhat inexplicable beatdown that Baylor took against Iowa State in its final home conference game at Ferrell center today, the Wildcats can be seeded no worse than 3rd in the Big 12 Tournament next week. That’s huge, of course, because it means avoiding the blue birds until at least the final. Texas is presently handling Kansas in Austin. If KU can come back, the Wildcats would finish in a 3-way tie for second. Whether that happens or not, it has been a remarkable season for first-year head coach Jerome Tang, his staff, and the team that they mostly assembled from scratch after arriving last March.