STILLWATER, Okla. — In Kansas State’s last two trips to Gallagher-Iba Arena, Frank Martin watched his team come apart at the seams late to lose. On Saturday, the Kansas State head coach began to think he was experiencing déjà vu all over again.
A 13-point lead became a three-point lead with two minutes left in the game, and momentum had built in one of college basketball’s toughest venues for road teams. The Wildcats know all about the Stillwater woes, losing 11 straight in Gallagher-Iba by an average of 13.3 points.
But just when it looked like everything was coming apart, the Wildcats were able to glue things back together before it was too late, holding on for a key 66-58 road victory over Oklahoma State.
“You don’t tell your players this but every year I’ve been here something’s happened where we’ve unraveled, and K-State hasn’t won here since ‘93,” Martin said. “I know these things. You sit there and you’re saying ‘this can’t happen again.’ I was real proud of how they stayed the course. Defensively, those last 3 minutes I thought we were rock solid.”
K-State, which improved to 14-4 overall and 3-3 in league play, led 55-42 after a pair of Will Spradling free throws with 4:56 remaining in the game. But Oklahoma State made a furious rally, cutting the lead to 59-56 on a Keiton Page 3-pointer with 2:01 left, which had Martin silenced for a moment.
“I just shut up because those kids, other than Jamar (Samuels), haven’t really been in that moment here before,” he said. “I sat there and said ‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’”
But the Wildcats didn’t fold under pressure this time. Samuels made sure that wouldn’t happen.
“I just told myself and the team ‘we can’t give up, we’ve got to win this game,’” said Samuels, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds. “‘We’ve had the game in our hands the entire game, just don’t give up, just keep pushing.’ And we got the win.”
Oklahoma State wouldn’t score in the final two minutes until Page made a meaningless shot at the buzzer. K-State made its free throws down the stretch, led by Angel Rodriguez, who converted 4-of-6 from the line in the last 90 seconds, to take care of business.
Free-throw shooting was hot and cold for the Wildcats. They missed 13 of their first 18 from the charity stripe to open the game, but converted 18 of their last 22 to finish 23-of-40 from the line.
“Angel, whose reputation has always been he’s never going to miss a free throw with the game on the line, he’s been missing them lately,” Martin said. “But he came out there in those last 3 minutes and (made them).”
K-State, for the second straight game, played its style of basketball, outrebounding the Cowboys (9-10, 2-4) 50-29, including 22-6 on the offensive glass. K-State outscored Oklahoma State 18-4 on second-chance points, but the thing Martin was most proud of in that facet was his team’s defensive rebounding, as the Wildcats limited Oklahoma State to just six offensive boards.
“I think they got one offensive rebound in the second half,” Martin said. “Our box-outs were better, guys weren’t standing watching. We actually had guys go get the ball. We’ve always been a real good rebounding team at K-State and exceptional on the offensive side. We’re getting better there but we’re nowhere close to where we need to be.”
K-State was dominant on the defensive end. Oklahoma State made just eight of its first 35 shots. The Cowboys missed their first 10 field goals to open the second half. From the 4-minute mark of the first half until there was 8:57 remaining in the game, Oklahoma State didn’t make a field goal, a stretch of more than 15 minutes where the Cowboys only scored at the foul line.
Oklahoma State missed its first 14 3-pointers, not connecting on an attempt from beyond the arc until 2:01 was left to play.
“That’s a huge thing that we tried to really improve from year’s past is defending that 3-point line,” Martin said. “Going into conference play we had done the best job with our team defense that we had in our five years here and we slipped. We slipped because I started putting my focus in on different things.
“We’ve gotten back the last seven days to our foundation, to practicing the things that are important to us, the things that make us who we are as a team rather than trying to recreate the wheel or some other thing. We refocused on who we are. That’s two games in a row where we’ve come out and our attention to detail is good, our enthusiasm was good.”
K-State held Page, the Cowboys’ leading scorer and a deadly threat from 3, to 17 points on 4-of-17 shooting, including just 1-of-9 from behind the arc.
Oklahoma State finished 1-of-16 from 3 and 16-of-46 from the field (35 percent), but the Cowboys made 25-of-29 from the free throw line to stay in the game.
The Wildcats received balanced production. Rodney McGruder and Rodriguez had 14 points and six rebounds apiece. Spradling scored eight points, Irving had six points and six rebounds, while Adrian Diaz recorded four points and nine rebounds while playing a season-high 24 minutes.
K-State now has its head back above water with a .500 record in conference play. And the Wildcats got a road win, which is big, but this one felt a little more significant for this K-State team due to the difficulty of the arena.
“This is one of the most intimidating places I’ve ever coached a basketball game,” Martin said. “Whether you’re at Northeastern in the America East (Conference), Cincinnati in Conference USA or the Big East, or the last six years of my life in the Big 12, when you win a conference road game you get on that plane and you’re excited about what your team got accomplished.
“I’m extremely proud. Our team confidence is starting to grow again and I’m excited.”