The harsh reality of the Big 12 is that losses at home make it incredibly tough to have any realistic shot of winning the conference.
“Can’t lose at home, can’t lose,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “I don’t care how, you’ve got to get it done.”
The Wildcats couldn’t get it done on Saturday, losing 63-60 to Oklahoma in Bramlage Coliseum. And with the loss, K-State very well may have been hit with the dagger that ends those hopes of being the top dog in the league.
“If you want to compete for a conference championship you can’t lose at home,” Martin said. “We had a great opportunity today to solidify ourselves as a top-third part of the league and we gave one away.”
The Wildcats, now 15-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12, had their chances, the last opportunity coming from Rodney McGruder. With 5 seconds remaining and K-State trailing by three, Will Spradling found an open McGruder from three feet behind the arc, but the junior’s shot hit off the back iron as time expired.
“I had a clean look,” said McGruder, who had 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
Martin said it was the look he wanted.
“That’s what we were trying to get and we got it,” he said.
It wasn’t the look that Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger wanted the Wildcats to get.
“We meant to foul and we didn’t,” said Kruger, who returned to coach a game in Manhattan for the first time since he left K-State in 1990.
But the loss certainly doesn’t fall on that missed shot. The Wildcats made just 3-of-17 (18 percent) from 3, and had 20 turnovers that led to 22 Oklahoma points.
“We continued to turn it over,” Martin said. “We’ve got to cut that out. Our turnovers aren’t aggressive turnovers, just careless, passive turnovers that lead to easy points and that’s a problem.”
Oklahoma, on the other hand, had just 14 turnovers that K-State converted into 12 points. The Sooners’ primary two point guards, Sam Grooms and Carl Blair, combined for 12 assists and just two turnovers.
“Their point guard doesn’t turn it over, gets their guys shots where they’re supposed to get shots,” Martin said. “That’s my battle with my point guards right now is to get them to not turn it over and to get shots for guys where we’re trying to get them shots from. When it’s not a physical game we do that, when it is a physical game we struggle. That’s something we’ve got to continue to work on.”
The offensive struggles overshadowed what was a solid defensive effort for the Wildcats. Oklahoma shot 40 percent from the floor overall, but just 29.6 percent in the second half.
“Our guys fought,” Martin said. “I’ve got no problem with our fight. I thought our defense was consistent with how we prepared all week, how we’ve been playing lately. Our defense wasn’t the problem.”
K-State was 21-51 from the floor, but shot just 37 percent in the second half.
The Sooners went to a 3-2 zone defense with less than 10 minutes remaining in the final period due to foul trouble, and the Wildcats struggled to score against it, making just four shots from the floor during the final 12 minutes of play.
“(Oklahoma) is a good, physical team,” Martin said. “We tried to match the physicality of the game. Defensively we held our ground, offensively we didn’t.”
That physicality showed in the final 15 seconds. With the Wildcats down one, Jordan Henriquez grabbed a defensive rebound following a missed jumper by Grooms with 15 seconds remaining. But Grooms stripped the ball from Henriquez, forcing the Wildcats to foul, and Romero Osby converted both free throws to push the Oklahoma lead to three.
“I saw him bring the ball down and was thinking I have to get the ball back,” Grooms said. “I just went after it with everything I had and it worked out.”
Steven Pledger scored a game-high 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3 to lead the Sooners.
K-State trailed 40-30 early in the first half, but used a 14-2 run to take a 44-42 lead with 10:55 left. The Wildcats eventually pushed their lead out to three, but Pledger connected on consecutive 3s to give the Sooners a 55-51 lead with 4:38 remaining.
The loss was tough to swallow for the Wildcats for more reasons than one. Oklahoma, a team that is now 3-5 in league play, defeated K-State twice in two weeks, sweeping the season series.
“It sucks to lose and it sucks to lose twice,” McGruder said. “It’s not a good feeling to lose at all but to lose to a team that came into your house and celebrated and things like that, it’s not a pleasant sight to see.”
And things get even tougher for the Wildcats, who hit the road to play an Iowa State team that just defeated No. 5 Kansas on Saturday. After two losses at home in Big 12 play, K-State could really use a victory in Ames on Tuesday.
“(Iowa State is) going to be ready,” McGruder said. “They’re going to be playing with a lot of confidence. We can’t be dwelling on this loss, we’ve got to get over it and be ready for the challenge.”