Kansas State coach Bruce Weber didn’t have time to evaluate his players’ psyches during Sunday’s loss to Texas Southern, because before the final five seconds, there was no reason for them to be affected.
The Wildcats blew a late four-point lead in Sunday’s loss and Weber saw the impact that made Wednesday, when KSU played a historically awful first half against Georgia.
Those 20 minutes led to the second-half benching of every starter. Weber saw an unlikely bunch rally from a 15-point deficit, but Nemanja Djurisic’s late three-pointer helped Georgia escape Bramlage Coliseum with a 50-46 win.
“We had a hangover from the other day, and it’s hard,” Weber said. “It’s an emotional hangover, and it’s hard to deal with. A couple guys fought through it, some guys didn’t. Some guys played hard in the first half, you just can’t turn it over and try to make plays too quick. You can’t miss layups.”
No KSU starter played more than seven minutes in the second half, including Stephen Hurt, who started in place of Thomas Gipson and had one point in 10 minutes. Gipson, who had started the previous 12 games, led a makeshift second unit that included Tre Harris, Malek Harris, Nigel Johnson and Wesley Iwundu.
Only Gipson reached double-figure scoring with a game-high 19 points in 30 minutes, but what the reserves lacked in offense they made up with energy, defense and an ability to take care of the basketball that most of the starters didn’t possess.
The Wildcats (7-6) committed 16 turnovers in the first half, seven combined by starting guards Jevon Thomas and Marcus Foster. Longer and more stable second-half possessions led to frequent feedings to Gipson, who established position on the low blocks against Marcus Thornton and Djurisic, opponents he outweighs by 30 pounds.
“I just played with a lot of emotion,” said Gipson, who had 17 points and five rebounds in the second half. “Coming off the bench, I know that my teammates needed energy, and I tried to be that spark.”
K-State didn’t score for the final 6:27 of the first half and trailed at halftime 20-12 after missing 18 of 23 shots and all seven three-point attempts. From the 10-minute mark of the first half until a Wesley Iwundu layup with 10:39 to go in the second, the Wildcats got one basket from a player other than Gipson.
Georgia established a double-digit lead during that stretch, but K-State stayed relatively close with a rebounding edge that ended 39-26, free throws and Gipson’s post scoring. The Wildcats completed the rally by forcing the Bulldogs into the same instability that plagued K-State during the first half.
Georgia finished with 17 turnovers, two fewer than Kansas State and a number that nearly negated its 50 percent second-half shooting.
“I thought they played hard the whole time,” Weber said of the Wildcats. “Probably our best defensive (game against) a team that scored 75, 80 points a game. We hold them to 20 in the first half and most of that was off our turnovers. That was the only thing they got.”
Georgia’s biggest lead was 35-20 with 12:10 to play, but K-State cut its deficit to four in fewer than five minutes. That stretch included the most consistent string of scoring from the second-unit players – Iwundu had a three-point play and Tre Harris scored to cut Georgia’s lead to 39-37.
Johnson had three free-throws during the comeback, then he completed it with a three-pointer that put the Wildcats ahead 42-41 with 4:31 to go.
“I’m proud of Nigel,” Weber said. “He had been pretty low on the bench and struggling but he came out and played well in the first half. In the second half, he got some confidence and started doing some better things.”
K-State’s lead grew to 46-43 but the Wildcats didn’t score for the final 2:50. Djurisic’s three-pointer put Georgia ahead 47-46 with 1:06 to play, and the Bulldogs sealed it with free throws.
“We found a group of five that wanted to battle, play and got some things done,” Weber said. “Obviously Thomas played with some better energy. We should have gotten him the ball down the stretch, that was disappointing on my part. They had veteran guys and they made some big plays.”