Shane Southwell’s body language told the story.
He slumped his shoulders, rested his hands on his hips and stared into space. Then the Kansas State senior guard walked off the Sprint Center court without saying a word, hardly acknowledging those trying to console him.
K-State’s hopes of making a run through the Big 12 Tournament had just ended with a 91-85 loss to No. 16 Iowa State. A quarterfinal defeat sent the Wildcats home early Thursday. Southwell blamed himself.
“The last play,” Southwell said, pausing to shake his head. “I had total tunnel vision. I seen Nigel (Johnson) at the last minute, but I lost the ball, because I had predetermined thoughts of getting to the rim and making a play. Down two, I really wanted to make a play and get to the basket, but that mistake kind of spread the lead. They scored the play right after and then they scored again. It was a big play.”
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Like most things at the end of this game – a back-and-forth thriller that had a sellout crowd roaring before noon – it didn’t go K-State’s way.
The Wildcats trailed 87-85 with 24 seconds left. Freshman guard Marcus Foster, who scored 21 points, had made an improbable three-pointer that spun hard off the back rim, and Southwell was leading a fastbreak. This was his chance to be the hero.
He could have passed on the perimeter to Johnson, a freshman who scored a career-high 17 points off the bench, and hoped he took advantage of the open space around him. Instead, he attacked multiple defenders and lost the ball. Iowa State grabbed it and closed out the game with four straight points.
“If I would have just been a little bit more patient, it probably would have worked out,” Southwell said. “Nigel would have had an open shot, and the way he was going, I have confidence in him and I think he would have made that shot.”
Southwell will have time to ponder that play, as well as other things, over the next few days. The Wildcats won’t learn of their NCAA Tournament assignment – potentially a No. 8, 9 or 10 seed – and location until Sunday.
Call it the lull before March Madness.
“You want to win and advance,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I hope it doesn’t hurt us too bad. I hope they understand when we play well, we can beat anyone in the country. But we have to go show it.”
Despite the loss, K-State showed several positives on Thursday.
Here’s what poor late-game execution spoiled: For Southwell, it ruined an otherwise strong day. He broke out of an extended slump with 19 points. K-State benefits from his confidence.
For the Wildcats, it spoiled a terrific shooting performance. K-State is known for defense, but on Thursday it traded blows with one of the most offensively skilled teams in the country, making 54.5 percent of its shots and producing their highest point total in a regulation game since beating Central Arkansas 87-54 on Dec. 1.
And they did it with Foster battling foul trouble throughout the second half.
“We shot 54 percent, scored 85 points and you still can’t win,” Weber said. “… You have to give them credit. They’re good. All three games (Iowa State won the season series 2-1) are the same, came down to the last couple of minutes, tie score. They made the plays and today they stepped up and made some shots to give them a victory.”
K-State players liked the way they matched Iowa State on offense. But they also regretted playing at such a fast tempo.
“That is probably something that we didn’t want to happen,” senior guard Will Spradling said. “We want to keep the game more in the 70s and hold them down into the 60s. I feel like every game we have won, we have won that way. We really hang our hat on defense. When a team scores 90, we are obviously not doing what we are supposed to.”
Melvin Ejim was the biggest difference maker for Iowa State. The Big 12 Player of the Year had a game-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds. But Dustin Hogue (19 points, 10 rebounds), and Georges Niang (18 points, seven rebounds), were also big.
Niang caused problems for K-State defenders with his size and ballhandling abilities, often spinning past multiple defenders for points. He gave the Cyclones an 87-82 lead by meandering through the paint and banking in an off-balance shot with his left hand. There was no way to defend against it.
“If you would have told me they would score 85, I would have told you we’re going to have trouble winning a game,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Because they’re so good and sound defensively. They really pack that thing in off the corners. But I thought our guys made big plays.”
Southwell had a chance to rebuttal, but he couldn’t take advantage.
His late turnover left him in despair, but his emotions quickly improved after he reached the locker room and Weber reminded everyone the season wasn’t over.
How long it lasts from here is up to K-State.
“We’re going to learn from the mistakes we had today,” Southwell said. “We pretty much got to put it behind us and learn from it … We still have a lot of games left and we have a lot of fight left.”