Everything about this outcome felt familiar.
From the first-half deficit, to the second-half rally to the last-minute collapse, Kansas State’s 81-71 loss to West Virginia on Saturday at WVU Coliseum mirrored all of the Wildcats’ recent defeats.
“It’s Groundhog Day for us,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We keep repeating the same actions on the road. We didn’t play very well in the first half and we battled in the second half to give ourselves a chance.… Then they took them away. We turned it over down the stretch and we missed free throws.”
With that, K-State (15-7, 5-4 Big 12) lost its fourth straight road game. All of them, outside a blowout loss at Kansas, have been close. In some ways, that has made the losing streak more frustrating.
The Wildcats lost on a buzzer-beater against Texas, they couldn’t finish off a comeback against Iowa State and they wilted with the game on the line against West Virginia (13-9, 5-4).
“We’ve had problems in the past, and it happened today,” post player Thomas Gipson said. “We were right there against Iowa State. We were right there against Texas. They’re tough teams. West Virginia is a tough team, too, but it’s our fault. We just have got to execute and be smarter and be more patient.”
K-State let this one slip away in the final three minutes.
Though it rallied from a 39-31 halftime deficit to tie the score and make things interesting in the second half, it followed its recent trend of succumbing to the pressure of a road venue when things mattered most.
Everything went wrong after Marcus Foster, a freshman guard who scored 23 points, made a transition layup with 3 minutes, 10 seconds remaining to cut West Virginia’s lead to 68-67.
West Virginia had an empty possession, but instead of K-State taking its first lead of the second half on the following possession, Gipson threw the ball out of bounds while trying to pass to Shane Southwell. Then Remi Dibo made K-State pay with a three-pointer.
Victory was still within reach, but K-State lost a turnover on its next possession when Foster threw the ball away trying to hit Gipson. Then Terry Henderson made two free throws to make the score 73-67.
K-State was running out of time, but a free throw from Foster kept its comeback hopes alive until Southwell stepped out of bounds while being trapped by three West Virginia defenders and Wesley Iwundu and Southwell both missed shots.
In all, K-State managed one point off those six possessions. Combined with eight missed free throws in the second half, it was an ugly ending.
By the time Will Spradling finally made a three to push K-State past 70 points, West Virginia held a comfortable 79-71 advantage. The game was over.
“We have got to execute better,” Weber said. “I have got to help them. They have got to help themselves. We all have to do a better job.”
Still, Weber didn’t blame all of this loss on the end.
“The biggest thing is the first half. We just don’t play,” Weber said. “Will had three turnovers in the first half. He hadn’t had three turnovers in four or five games. I have got to help them. We have got to find a way to get better prepared and have some emotion and passion in the first half. That’s where we lost the game. Not at the end.”
“We’re just not playing with energy in the first half,” said Gipson, who had 19 points and eight rebounds. “Coach kind of threatened us with some words just for us to play in the second half. We can’t be like that. If we want to be a good team, you got to bring it first and second half.”
The Mountaineers made things difficult for the Wildcats from the start behind the superb play of star guard Juwan Staten.
He abused K-State’s perimeter defense for an astounding 35 points — a career-high and the most by a Big 12 player this season — by making 8 of 13 shots. But he did most of his damage from the free-throw line, sinking 18 of 21 foul shots.
“He wants to win. That’s the bottom line,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We changed some things that we thought would help with Juwan. Honestly, we got what we wanted. We thought we could get to the free-throw line and that happened.”
No kidding. Staten continually blew past Spradling, Foster and Jevon Thomas and attacked the rim. In many situations, the Wildcats had no choice but to foul.
“Staten got going early and he just carried on over to the second half,” Foster said. “He’s a very fast guard. He can get in the lane and get by anybody. I feel he’s the best point guard in the league right now.”
He didn’t look nearly as good when these teams met a month ago. In that game, Thomas, a freshman point guard, defended Staten with precision, holding him to 16 points and forcing him into seven turnovers.
But this was a different game.
“We just couldn’t guard it,” Weber said. “When he gets to the line 35 times, or whatever it was, it’s tough to deal with … We need Jevon. Jevon can guard, but if he mentally defeats himself on the offensive end we have trouble playing him.”
Thomas wasn’t the only K-State player to struggle on offense. Outside of Foster, Thomas and Spradling, who scored nine points, the Wildcats lacked production.
Staten, Henderson, Eron Harris and Dibo countered by all reaching double figures.
Those numbers leave the Wildcats facing difficult questions, including if they are incapable of winning challenging road games in the Big 12? Only one of their 15 victories have occurred on the road, and that was at lowly TCU.
Fortunately, they get a week off, followed by home games against Texas and Kansas to solve those problems before heading to Baylor.
“We just have to figure it out somehow, because we have got to get a road win sooner or later,” Gipson said. “We’re good, but we can be a lot better. If we won the close games that we’ve had in away games, we would be right at the top of the league, but unfortunately things happen for a reason and I think this is just a way for us to be better.”