AMES, Iowa — Some will say there is no shame in losing back-to-back road games in the Big 12. With six ranked teams and a double round-robin schedule, everyone is going to fall a time or two. The conference is too strong to expect otherwise. That’s the argument, at least.
Bruce Weber views things differently.
Kansas State’s basketball coach took no positives from an 81-75 loss to Iowa State on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum. The No. 22 Wildcats played well enough at times to win, but a large first-half deficit ultimately proved too large to overcome. Combined with a last-second loss at Texas on Tuesday, it’s been a frustrating week.
This was K-State’s opportunity to make a statement. Two wins would have boosted their ranking and kept them in the conference championship race. A sweep would have kept them in a tie for second. Instead, they are facing their first losing skid since November. And another difficult stretch is up next.
"It’s a gut-check week for our guys coming up," Weber said. "… We have to get better … I told them before the game, ‘We are a good team. Do you want to be a really good team?’ That is the question. That will be determined, I think, by our leadership and staying focused and our young guys learning the game and getting better."
The Wildcats (14-6, 4-3 Big 12) may not be far off, but they certainly lacked the consistency required to beat the Cyclones (15-3, 3-3) in a difficult environment.
Iowa State entered this game angry and motivated following a three-game losing streak. So did its fans.
The Cyclones looked energized from start to finish and they took a 46-34 halftime lead. The Wildcats had to be low on confidence heading into the locker room, considering they jumped to a 15-11 advantage and trailed 34-32 more than 17 minutes into the game.
Behind eight three-pointers, including four from unheralded Matt Thomas, and a strong effort from Georges Niang inside, Iowa State ended the half on a 12-2 run that swung the game in its favor.
"We jumped on them real quick, but we didn’t keep our foot on the gas," said K-State guard Marcus Foster, who scored 20 points. "We let go and that’s how they made the run."
During that stretch, Thomas and Niang both hit threes and Monte Morris raced the length of the court to beat the buzzer for a layup. For the second straight game, the Wildcats blamed their normally dependable defense for a loss.
"We scored enough points today, 75 is pretty good. We just didn’t stop them," Weber said. "We let them take too big of a margin there in the first half. I think that is key. We can’t let our offense dictate our defense. A year from now, you’ve got more experienced guys and maybe you can play a little quicker. Right now we need to play solid and take care of the basketball."
There were several reasons for the breakdown. Weber blamed himself for taking Will Spradling, who made four three-pointers on his way 12 points, out of the game at the end of the first half. K-State’s double-teams were often ineffective against Iowa State forwards Melvin Ejim, who finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, and Niang, who had 18 points and four rebounds. Also, K-State continued to struggle while defending in transition.
At times, it seemed as if the Wildcats had no answers for Iowa State’s hot shooting.
"For us, it really spreads out the floor," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It allows DeAndre (Kane) to go to work and lets Georges get going on the block and make the right play. We had 17 assists. That is a great number. It was nice to be able to space out. You just can’t leave a guy when they are feeling it and have that rhythm."
Still, K-State made a push in the second half. It was almost enough to steal the game.
Less than three minutes in, Foster hit a three that cut the score to 46-43.
Iowa State tried to separate itself again, but Shane Southwell, who scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, hit a three with 13:11 remaining to the game at 50-50.
When Iowa State tried to push back, Will Spradling answered with three quick threes and backup forward D.J. Johnson converted a transition dunk.
"We have been in that situation before," Spradling said. "We were in that situation at KU, and we let it go the other way. We weren’t going to come out and let that happen again. We learned from that game. Obviously, we didn’t finish the way we needed to. But we learned from that game."
Added Weber: "To our kids credit, they came back and fought and battled. The start of the first half was good. The start of the second half was good. They are a team of runs. We told our guys that. We made our run and we had our opportunities, we just didn’t make the plays."
That’s why K-State was unable to take a lead in the second half.
K-State had its best opportunity to take the lead with 12:47 remaining. The game was tied and Southwell was leading a fastbreak. He had Omari Lawrence open underneath the basket and Foster open in the corner. He opted to pass to Foster, who fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Weber said Southwell made the wrong decision.
"He’s got to play better, Weber said. "He and Thomas (Gipson) have got to play better. Our freshman didn’t play well the other day at Texas. Today, these two guys didn’t play their best basketball."
Gipson was off his usual form, scoring four points in 28 minutes. Southwell missed two important threes in the final 31 seconds. Nino Williams also brought little to the court in 12 minutes.
K-State is inconsistent on offense under normal conditions. When its most dependable players perform at below-average levels, winning games on the road becomes exceedingly difficult.
"When we move the basketball and move we are a pretty good team," Weber said. "We go one-on-one too much. Some of it is youth. Some of it you have got to put on my shoulders. We have got to do a better job preparing them and making sure they get the ball to the right person at the right time."