MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — As the final buzzer sounded on Kansas State’s 65-64 victory over West Virginia on Saturday, Shane Southwell flexed his muscles and screamed.
It wasn’t the most elaborate celebration he has choreographed, but it sure felt like it.
Cameras gathered around him to capture the moment, Mountaineers fans turned away in disgust and teammates came from all directions to party with the man who had just helped them win an important conference road game by scoring a career-high 17 points and making two huge plays.
First, Southwell made two free throws to give No. 18 K-State a one-point lead with 22 seconds remaining. Then, when a mad scramble for the ball on West Virginia’s final possession ended with Gary Browne sprinting toward the basket for a potential game-winning layup, Southwell soared into the air and blocked the ball out of play as time expired.
Just like that, the Wildcats (13-2, 2-0 Big 12) went from flirting with defeat to winning their first two conference games for the first time since 2008, when they started 5-0 behind Michael Beasley.
“Since I came to college I’ve been waiting to be in moments like that, big-time, pressure situations,” Southwell said. “I haven’t been in something like that since my freshman year, but not to that magnitude where it is just on you. It’s something that you’ve got to do as a player.”
Coming into the game, Southwell didn’t seem like the type of player who would come through with clutch plays in front of 10,039 opposing fans. The junior guard was averaging 6.3 points, and this was only his sixth start. He had a disappointing sophomore year, and hadn’t contributed much to the program since his time as a spot starter late as a freshman.
“Shane is talented. I think anyone who has watched him agrees there is no doubt about that,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “… He is a good passer. He has a nice little pull-up jumper. If we can get him to go a little harder more consistently, he is as talented as anyone as we have in our program.”
He proved why by showing complete confidence when his team trailed by a point in the closing seconds.
“It was just free throws,” Southwell said. “If you follow your routine, you are going to make them.”
From there, everything else came easy. There is a reason K-State is 7-0 under Weber in games decided by single digits. The Wildcats know how to play with poise.
“You just have to keep composure and not get rattled,” said senior swingman Rodney McGruder, who scored 17 points. “Being a basketball player, you have a lot of close games. You just have to keep your composure and keep a level head and try to come out with a victory like we did today.”
One thing that allowed Southwell to contribute so much against West Virginia was his ability to avoid fouls. His teammates were plagued by them Saturday. The Wildcats committed 22 fouls, with five players earning three or more and Jordan Henriquez fouling out with 5:31 remaining.
That made for an interesting first half. The Wildcats committed 13 fouls, turned the ball over eight times and saw West Virginia shoot 64.7 percent, but managed to take a 36-33 lead behind 68.2-percent shooting of their own.
West Virginia tried to take control in the opening minute of the second half by going on an 8-0 run, with Jabarie Hinds, who scored 15 points, leading the way. But McGruder and Southwell responded by sparking K-State’s 7-0 run. Then the Mountaineers ensured the game would be close until the end by missing 10 of 22 free throws.
“You certainly cannot miss free throws,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “Then every call becomes a whole lot more important.”
The most important plays Saturday came late — where the Wildcats are starting to feel most comfortable.
“We have got some experience. We’ve got guys who have been through it before,” Weber said. “Maybe last year you didn’t win the games and now you’re a little older. We’ve got some guys who want the ball at the end.”
Southwell was one. He made 5 of 7 shots, including two three-pointers, grabbed four rebounds and had three assists. McGruder kept his hot streak going by making three three-pointers. And Angel Rodriguez came through with important shots and a key deflection that forced West Virginia (8-7, 1-2) to abandon the set play it hoped to run at the end.
They all played a part in this victory. Southwell was the hero, but that role can change from game-to-game. Nino Williams came off the bench to score 17 points in a close win over Oklahoma State last week. Will Spradling made several three-pointers to help K-State beat Florida.
It doesn’t have to be the same player every time. K-State doesn’t want it that way.
“Our offense is not really for one person,” said Rodriguez, who scored nine points. “It is for whoever is playing well that day, and today (Southwell) was the guy. He had a great game. He helped us with this win. I think it makes it hard on our opponents to focus on all of us and not just one. It can be me today, Rodney tomorrow, Shane, whoever.”