KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State has struggled to score at times under first-year coach Bruce Weber, but the Wildcats reached a new low during the first half of a 70-54 loss to Kansas in the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament.
Instead of passing the ball around the perimeter and using an endless series of screens to get players open in ideal situations, they often dribbled the ball at the top of the key until they had no choice but to take a difficult, guarded shot.
That led to a season-low 16 points in the first half and the lowest scoring total since a 52-50 victory over Oklahoma in early February.
K-State players didn’t look lost running Weber’s motion offense as they did in a November loss to Michigan at Madison Square Garden, in which the Wildcats scored 24 points in the first half and had trouble passing the ball, but something was definitely off. It could have been fatigue. It could have been nerves. It could have been the environment. Or it could have been Kansas, which beat K-State three times by an average of 13.6 points.
Perhaps it was a combination. Whatever the case, no one on in K-State’s locker room was in the mood to make excuses.
“I wanted this victory very badly,” said senior wing Rodney McGruder, who finished a strong conference tournament with 18 points and five rebounds. “We worked so hard to get here just to let it slip.”
The loss was hard to take, because there was a trophy on the line. The Wildcats and Jayhawks split the regular season Big 12 championship with 14-4 records, but a head-to-head tiebreaker gave Kansas the No. 1 seed in the league tournament. K-State wanted a championship it could keep all to itself.
And after losing to Kansas in the 2010 tournament final, K-State’s three seniors — McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Martavious Irving — were hoping for redemption.
They didn’t get it. K-State made 6 of its first 27 shots and went nearly 10 minutes, 30 seconds between field goals in the first half.
“It just took a toll on us mentally,” Weber said. “One, the three days in a row, then not making shots, now you don’t have smiles on your face. We gave up a couple shots you hope you wouldn’t against them.
“You’ve got to make shots. Against them, we don’t have the length and size to score inside. Until you make some perimeter shots you don’t spread the defense. And you’ve got to get a little transition and we didn’t have that.”
McGruder looked confident. Everyone else seemed timid.
“The biggest thing that we didn’t do tonight was attack the rim like we do normally,” said junior guard Will Spradling, who was held scoreless. “You could tell by the fouls. It was 6-0 at one point. We were really settling for jump shots and threes. That’s something that we can’t do, especially against KU. You have got to attack them and try to get (Jeff) Withey in foul trouble.”
K-State played well on defense for the third straight night. And that’s what kept it within striking distance early in the second half despite shooting 35 percent. It trailed 24-16 at halftime and closed to within three on two occasions at the start of the second half.
But when the Jayhawks answered back with a run of their own the Wildcats were too tired to fight back. Throughout the second half, McGruder hung his head and gasped for air with his hands on his knees during dead-ball situations. Open shots he and Angel Rodriguez normally make came up short.
After giving it their all in defensive-centered victories over Texas and Oklahoma State, K-State was unable to overcome missed shots in the final.
“I wasn’t where I wanted to be energy-wise,” McGruder said. “It has been a tough couple of games.”
Still, his coach was proud of him.
“There is no better kid,” Weber said. “He was ready to play this whole weekend. He knew his time is winding down. He played at a high level. He had to work pretty hard and he had to work very hard all week. In my mind he was the player of the tournament.”
If he continues to play that well next week in the NCAA Tournament, K-State may be able to put this setback behind it.
The key will be getting K-State’s offense back on track.
“Basketball happens like that sometimes,” McGruder said. “It’s not going to go your way every night. You just have to find other ways to stay in the game. We didn’t do that, but you just have to get over this and prepare for the next one.”