KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Marcus Foster went to the bench this season, Kansas State didn’t always have an answer to fill his scoring gap.
When Foster wasn’t in on Thursday, they had it in fellow freshman Nigel Johnson.
Johnson scored a career-high 17 points in the Wildcats’ 91-85 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 quarterfinals at the Sprint Center, mostly coming when Foster was on the bench.
Johnson scored five straight in the first half to push the Wildcats ahead 17-11, and then came back to the game in the second half with Foster to the bench with three fouls.
Johnson scored five more points until Foster replaced him, and then returned when Foster picked up his fourth foul in less than a minute.
Johnson scored seven more points in the next four minutes, giving the Wildcats a 72-70 lead with 6:23 left on his final field goal.
“It was big,” Southwell said of Johnson’s performance. “We pride ourselves on our bench play and next man up, so he played really well. He’s a really talented player, we just need some glimpses of that every day or every game and even in practice.”
Johnson hadn’t scored in double figures since Feb. 22, at Oklahoma. Late in that contest, with the Wildcats getting soundly beaten by the Sooners, Johnson made three straight shots and finished with 11 points. His run brought the Wildcats within fighting distance before the Sooners went on a run to put it away.
But in the four games since then, he made just 4 of 14 shots and admitted he was hesitant to shoot.
“I’ve been passing up a lot of open shots,” he said. “The coaches have been telling me all week, they were pulling me aside in practice and asking me ‘what’s going on?’ I made an effort when I got in and I was open. I was going to take it and make a play.”
It was just the fourth time Johnson scored in double figures this season, but it continued a trend that has often gone hand-in-hand with K-State and its level of success in Big 12 play. When the bench played well, the team more often than not, won the game.
On Thursday, K-State’s bench outscored Iowa State’s 41-14. But the Wildcats didn’t make enough plays at the end.
“Nigel was good off the bench,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I thought our whole bench did a nice job again. Not only Nigel, his career high, but Omari (Lawrence) got in the first half — gave us a nice spark.”
Southwell finished with 19 points off the bench, shooting much better than he had over the last month and a half. Southwell said after the game he wasn’t concerned with how he played, but concerned that they lost despite of his and Johnson’s performances.
“He’s a really talented player, and I’m really proud of him,” he said. “We appreciate the performance he had, we just got to go out there and defend and get a couple more stops and we would have been even happier.”
The Wildcats are expected to be in the NCAA tournament next week, and Johnson’s teammates said they hope his performance is a sign of things to come for the rest of March. Weber said this is the time of the year you have to have players pick up their play, especially guys who are unexpected to do so.
Johnson said his confidence was boosted by coaches giving him the green light, and knowing his team needed another scorer with Foster in foul trouble.
Foster said he saw a game like this coming from Johnson, and he’s hoping for more.
“It’s a confidence booster for a guy like Nigel Johnson to come in and score like that,” he said. “He’s a very good scorer not having a big scoring year, but that gives him the confidence going forward.”