Kansas State has never missed Kamau Stokes more than it did Saturday during an 80-71 loss to Texas Tech at United Supermarkets Arena.
Stokes, the team’s top point guard, hasn’t played since he suffered a knee injury in late January, and his absence has been noticeable on a team that struggles to consistently make shots and handle the ball. But the Wildcats really could have used him in this one, appearing totally out of sync against the Red Raiders’ pressure defense.
Wesley Iwundu couldn’t avoid mid-court traps, Barry Brown failed to capitalize on open passing lanes and Carble Ervin went scoreless. Together, they have shared point-guard duties for more than a month and produced some positive results, but not this time.
“We don’t have a true point guard,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “That is just a fact of life.”
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One that Texas Tech (19-11, 9-9 Big 12) hammered home by dominating once coach Tubby Smith called for a full-court press, making it difficult for K-State (16-15, 5-13) to simply bring the ball up or score out of half-court sets.
Without Stokes, or a capable replacement, the Wildcats were doomed.
“It’s been tough, because we got used to playing with him the first half of the season,” K-State senior Justin Edwards said after scoring 16 points. “But, like coach always says, we have to move on. It sucks not to have Kamau, but we have got to find a way to win and do things that Kamau helped us do.”
That much was obvious during the drastic momentum shift that occurred after the game’s opening 10 minutes. The Wildcats made their first six shots and took a 23-11 lead, looking like a team that wanted to win consecutive conference games for the first time this season. But those good moments occurred with Texas Tech playing standard man defense.
Changing to a press followed by zone forced K-State players to make decisions on the fly, which they were ill equipped to do. They turned the ball over 15 times, leading to defensive breakdowns on the other end. Texas Tech started to make easy baskets, shooting 59.2 percent, and K-State had to play catch up the rest of the way.
“We became too complacent coming off a great start,” Edwards said. “We didn’t keep the pressure on them like we should have. When they (tightened) up the screws, we didn’t fight back.”
Weber saw it coming. He said practices took a negative turn following a victory over TCU, and he expected a drop in play.
The loss ended a trying regular season for K-State. Though its victory total is an improvement from last season’s 15-17 mark, its five conference victories is not. This is the first time K-State has won less than six league games since 2003.
That fate seemed inevitable after the opening minutes Saturday.
“We go a little too far,” Weber said. “If somebody is open, throw it to them. We did that in the beginning. That was the one thing. We struggled with turnovers all year. We didn’t have many turnovers early in the game, but once they picked up the pressure we panicked a little bit, went too fast and probably tried to force things that weren’t there.”
Momentum swung so heavily in favor of the Red Raiders that K-State watched a 23-11 lead with 9:32 remaining in the first half become a 59-41 deficit with 9:37 remaining in the game.
Texas Tech ended the first half on a 25-5 run and started the second half on a 23-13 run. The Wildcats made a late charge behind D.J. Johnson, who scored a game-high 21 points, and pulled within single digits on several occasions, but it was too little too late.
“Bruce Weber’s teams never give up,” Smith said. “They never quit, and they didn’t today. We’re happy to get the win.”
Texas Tech held off K-State thanks to a series of three-pointers, including a fade-away that banked in off the backboard, from Keenan Evans, Aaron Ross and Toddrick Gotcher. The win likely clinched Tech a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Evans and Devaugntah Williams both led the Red Raiders with 20 points.
For K-State, it was yet another game filled with ups and downs.
“I don’t know if I have had a team like this,” Weber said. “Consistency is the big key. It’s your youth. This morning we are sitting their pregame looking at all conference (nominees) and we … are the only one with freshmen playing, and you would have Kamau out there. He would be a key part of it.
“Even the other guys -- D.J. hasn’t played for a long time, Wesley has had to kind of change positions for us. I’m not making excuses. You asked me a question, I am just trying to give you an answer the best I can describe. I don’t think we have a go-to guy. When things get tough, who is going to pick it up?”
The Wildcats will continue to search for answers in the Big 12 Tournament, where they will try to make a NIT push starting Wednesday against Oklahoma State in the play-in round.
Without Stokes, pressure will once again be on K-State’s point guards.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett