DAYTON, Ohio — Survive and advance.
With a tough defensive mentality and some of the best offensive efficiency of the season, Kansas State didn’t have to hold on for dear life against Wake Forest. The Wildcats built a lead and closed out a 95-88 win over the Demon Deacons on Tuesday in the First Four at UD Arena.
The Wildcats now head to Sacramento for the opening round of the NCAA tournament where they face No. 6 seed Cincinnati at 6:27 p.m. on Friday on TruTV.
It’s the first NCAA tournament win for the Wildcats since beating Southern Miss in the first round in 2012.
“I think we believed we could win,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I’m not sure anyone else did. I know we talked a lot about nationwide, the networks, everybody has (Wake Forest) moving on. We felt if we guarded and took care of the ball and moved the basketball, we’d be able to score.”
K-State (21-13) led by four at halftime and saw Wake Forest climb within one point of the lead with nine minutes left before using a pair of runs to put the Demon Deacons away. The Wildcats shot a program postseason-best 66 percent.
Weber said the game came down to his team’s 42 points in the paint and 18 assists. Wake Forest coach Danny Manning agreed.
“They had 42 points in the paint,” Manning said. “It wasn’t the big guys. It was their guards getting dribble penetration. So staying in front of the basketball was something we know we needed to do. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
Both teams made six of their first seven shots out of the gate in the second half, but K-State outscored Wake Forest 17-13 during the stretch thanks to nine points from Kamau Stokes.
K-State’s 57-49 lead slowly shrank as the Demon Deacons continued to hit shots and started adding points from the free-throw line. Inside presence John Collins heated up for Wake Forest and the Wildcat lead fell to 65-64 with 9:03 left.
But the Demon Deacons (19-14) couldn’t seem to make a play to take the lead. After a Collins alley-oop cut the lead to 72-70 with 5:26 on the clock, the Wildcats rattled off seven straight points on a 3 from Stokes and a layup and two free throws from Wesley Iwundu to go ahead 79-70 with 4:14 left.
Wake Forest cut into the lead with a 3 from Austin Arians, and back-to-back plays from Bryant Crawford helped the Demon Deacons trim the lead down to 84-79 with 2:04 to play.
Crawford got called for a flagrant foul on the ensuing possession, getting knocked down by a Dean Wade screen and appearing to reach up to grab at Stokes as he moved away.
A lengthy review halted momentum for both teams, but Wake Forest seemingly never recovered. K-State rattled off six straight points in response, building up an 11-point lead with 58 seconds to play.
“They did a good job of handling that,” Iwundu said. “You could say what you want about it, but we just stepped up and made plays. That was the difference in the game.”
So many times this season the game has gone the other way for the Wildcats.
Just last week K-State let a lead over West Virginia slip in the final minutes, and its run at the Big 12 tournament ended. This time the Wildcats didn’t let the lead slip away.
“I think in the second half we did a better job of executing,” Iwundu said. “Guys stepped up, made big plays down the stretch.”
K-State had four players in double figures, with Iwundu scoring a team-high 24 points. Stokes scored 22, D.J. Johnson had 18 and Barry Brown finished with 14.
Much of the talk around the game coming in centered around Wake Forest’s big man, Collins. He scored a game-high 26 points. Crawford finished with 20, and Austin Arians scored 17.
K-State was strong in the first half despite dealing with foul trouble from the start. The Wildcats opened out to a 9-4 lead with five points from Wade, but the sophomore forward picked up his second foul with 15:15 left in the half and went to the bench.
Wake Forest took advantage with a quick 7-2 scoring run to take its first lead of the game at 13-11. K-State responded with seven straight points to go up 18-13 with 10:05 to play in the first frame.
The Demon Deacons fought back to pull within one of the lead with 4:32 left in the half, but K-State got six straight points to take its biggest lead of the half at 36-29.
Wake Forest outscored K-State 7-4 in the final three minutes of the half to cut the lead to 40-36 at halftime.
The Wildcats picked up 15 fouls in the half and allowed Wake Forest to do much of its damage from the foul line. The Demon Deacons were 17 of 18 from the line in the first 20 minutes.
The Wildcats were the last team to receive an at-large big on Sunday, but now they’re one of the first teams to record a win in the 2017 field. Weber hopes they can use it as momentum for the next game.
“After we lost to West Virginia I told them it was an advantage,” Weber said. “We got beat by LaSalle who came through here, and we were Big 12 champs. They came to Kansas City, and you would think everything was on our side, and they just shot lights out. I’m telling them it’s an advantage.”