MANHATTAN — Late in the second half of Kansas State's 76-67 victory over Presbyterian on Thursday at Bramlage Coliseum, Victor Ojeleye was met with a standing ovation as he exited the game.
It was a scene that has taken place countless times throughout the junior walk-on’s career at Kansas State, but for once the applause came with deep meaning.
Ojeleye was not inserted into the lineup of the regional CBE Classic game with the Blue Hose to close out an easy victory against an overmatched foe. No, the Wildcats needed his contributions — four points, two rebounds and eight minutes of strong defensive play — in the worst possible way.
Afterward, K-State basketball coach Frank Martin expressed his appreciation by saying he was thankful Ojeleye was able to offer his team a lift when he took the court for the first time with 9 minutes, 53 seconds remaining
Without him, there is no guarantee the third-ranked Wildcats (3-0) would be unbeaten heading into next week's much-anticipated CBE Classic games against Gonzaga and either Marquette or defending national champion Duke.
"You saw the ugly side of our team today," Martin said. "A group of young kids with upperclassmen that provide absolutely no leadership. That's our problem. When your best leader is a junior walk-on your upperclassmen should go look in the mirror and figure that out."
K-State players certainly struggled to provide leadership against Presbyterian. After taking a 44-30 lead over the Blue Hose at halftime, the Wildcats had all kinds of trouble pulling away.
Behind 15 points and 14 rebounds from forward Al'Lonzo Coleman, a 9-for-15 shooting performance from behind the arc, and a zone defense, Presbyterian made a methodical comeback and pulled within 63-60 with 8:31 remaining.
The once-noisy crowd of Wildcats supporters was nervous and quiet. Fans were worried about an upset of epic proportions. In season-opening against Vanderbilt, Presbyterian (0-2) lost 88-47.
"We were prepared to win," Presbyterian coach Gregg Nibert said. "Our guys kept playing and kept believing."
It was nearly enough. But the Wildcats finished the game on a 13-7 run to avoid disaster.
Still, there was plenty of blame to go around when it was over.
"There's a lot to shake your head at," said senior guard Jacob Pullen. "As a team we just didn't do what K-State has been able to do the last few years. What we hang our hat on, what we do every game regardless of the opponent we just weren't able to do that. From a players' standpoint you can't be happy with our performance."
Martin said the Wildcats hurt themselves by playing without energy and seeming disinterest after halftime.
K-State's frontcourt didn't help either. For the third straight game it was unable to take advantage of a smaller opponent. Starting junior forward Freddy Asprilla scored six points and grabbed four rebounds and Wally Judge managed 10 points and two rebounds.
Presbyterian challenged them inside all game long, and matched K-State rebound for rebound at 33 apiece. And the Wildcats never could figure out how to stop Coleman — until Ojeleye began guarding him and following K-State's scouting report on him, anyway.
"I just told Victor I've done him a disservice the last couple games, because he deserves to play and I've been playing the guys who look good in pictures," Martin said. I'm a little tired of the game being over and our bigs having zero defensive rebounds.
"They're good kids, I like them, but they're not producing. So it's time to move some stuff around."
That means the next few days of practice should be interesting.
Martin said he wants to see more leadership and emotion from his players. Lately, not even senior guard Jacob Pullen, who scored 15 points, has been pulling his weight in those areas.
Ojeleye filled in late Thursday. He set a good example to follow.
"I just came in with the mindset that I come in with everyday," Ojeleye said. "I think it is a privilege to do this every day. It is something that you have to take great pride in every time you are out there. Whether you are out there 2 seconds or 26 minutes, it has to be the same way every time."