Special to The Mercury
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It was a tale of two halves for Wesley Iwundu. Unfortunately for the No. 11 Kansas State Wildcats, this tale had a sad ending Friday night in Sacramento, California, against No. 6 Cincinnati.
The Wildcats’ senior leader was held to just four points in the first half and had to sit with three fouls with just under seven minutes left. Iwundu would pace the Wildcats with 15 second-half points, but the Bearcats’ proved to be too physical and too smooth down the stretch and advanced in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with a 75-61 victory. Cincinnati plays No. 3 UCLA Sunday in Sacramento.
Iwundu’s first points didn’t come until 12:24 left in first half.
He picked up his third foul with 6:56 left and didn’t return until the start of the second half.
“In a game like this, I want to be in the game,” Iwundu said. “I definitely feel like those three fouls affected the game. I could have helped the team out so much more in the first half when they went on that little run or whatever. Things could have probably been different. (The referees) saw some things that I didn’t agree with. But it is what it is. Cincinnati was the better team, and they came out with the win.”
Cronin said after the game that he watched hours of game tape on Iwundu, who was the focus of the Bearcats’ defensive game plan. The Bearcats then went right at him to start the second half.
“We tried to get the third, and then we tried to go at him to get the fourth,” Cronin said. “So no doubt those were very big plays for us, and I give our guys credit. Jacob (Evans), I think, was the guy that put his third on him, and he did it on purpose. Playing smart is a big part of this. Everybody plays hard this time of year. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in this tournament. You have to play smart, and it was a smart play by Jacob Evans.”
A Barry Brown three-pointer cut the Bearcats’ lead to six at 49-43 with 14:10 left in the game. But Cincinnati kept responding and often with easy shots in the paint. K-State suffered through a scoreless field goal drought of 4:36 in the second half, and Cincinnati pulled away and built a 13-point lead. K-State forward Dean Wade and D.J. Johnson would collapse on a Bearcats big man, who would then find his cutting teammate and often for a dunk. The Bearcats started the game 8-for-8 and shot 62.8 percent from the field for the contest and outscored the Wildcats in the paint, 3422. Wade had nine points for the Wildcats while Johnson added eight.
“Well, right away off the bat, we took jump shots and they got layups,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We talked about coming and doubling early. We probably weren’t quite in sync. We came early. They made a couple of dishes, got easy hoops, got feeling good and made three or four shot clock plays. But you see (Gary) Clark and (Kyle) Washington with 15 or 16 points. Obviously, Troy (Caupain) played at a high, high level for them.”
Caupain, a senior guard, led all scorers with 23 points and tied Brown for the game-high in rebounds with seven. Caupain was 7-for-10 from the field.
Weber cleared the bench with 43 seconds left, which gave seniors Austin Budke and Zach Winter a chance to play.
Iwundu got hugs from Weber, every player and assistant on the bench as he worked his way to an empty seat at the far end. There he had a chance to reflect on his career and his impact on the Wildcats’ program.
Iwundu is the first Wildcat in program history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals. Rolando Blackman eclipsed those marks in his career, too, but played when steals stats were not kept. Iwundu’s 124th start Friday extended his Wildcats record.
“It meant a lot,” Iwundu said of his legacy and the Wildcats’ return to March Madness after a five-year absence. “I wanted to go out on a note like this, being in the NCAA Tournament for one last time. I wish it could have been different, but I do feel like the future is bright. We have a lot of good players coming back next year and also, with a coach like Coach Weber, the sky is the limit. I feel good about this situation going forward.”
That NCAA tournament experience should be invaluable for the three sophomore starters Friday in Wade, Kamau Stokes and Brown. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Maurice and Xavier Sneed, played 15 and 12 minutes, respectively. Of the eight Wildcats who played significant minutes Friday, five are sophomores or freshmen.
“For the young guys, it’s a great experience and that’s what I told them afterward. You got a taste of it. Now you want more. You’ve got to get better,” Weber said. “It was great experience for our guys. To be part of this and, like I’ve said all along, I can’t be more thrilled about the group and proud of them. They fought through a lot of different things and stayed the course, and we had a great finish to the season.”