Kansas State had lost consecutive games in the final seconds, and as a result, the Wildcats had become a somewhat wounded team.
“I knew we were slightly vulnerable,” K-State head coach Frank Martin said.
The wound could have gotten worse when K-State fell behind by 10 in the first half against Texas A&M on Saturday. But the Wildcats stitched it up, using a strong second half to defeat the Aggies 64-53 in Bramlage Coliseum.
“At Iowa State we could never stop the bleeding when they started going,” Martin said. “Today we stopped the bleeding.”
K-State’s defense was the reason why. A&M was playing without starting point guard Dash Harris for the third straight game. Without a true point guard on the floor, the Wildcats (16-6, 5-5) saw something they could take advantage of.
Martin utilized a full-court pressure defense during spurts on Saturday, and five minutes into the second half it began to get to the Aggies.
After A&M took a 34-30 lead with 15:47 to go in the contest, Martin promptly called a timeout. It was at that point that the game changed. K-State turned the Aggies over eight times over a seven-minute stretch to take a 52-40 lead. The Wildcats expanded the lead to 57-40, capping a 27-6 run with 6:55 remaining.
So what exactly went on in that timeout?
“I settled them down,” Martin said. “Sometimes I let timeouts go a little longer but I knew I couldn’t allow A&M (12-10, 3-7) to bust that game back open to seven, eight, nine points. I didn’t know how our young kids would handle that so I thought I had to stop it right there and then.”
The Aggies, who finished with just eight assists and 19 turnovers, only turned the ball over one other time in the second half outside of that seven-minute stretch, but the eight that occurred during that time were costly.
“We expected the pressure,” A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. “They started off that way in the beginning of the game and we got up on them. We broke the pressure and got some open shots. But they physically just wore us down. That is what K-State does to you. The defense was just really good.”
Martin said he knew without Harris on the court that he would use a press to try and force A&M into mistakes.
“Going into the game that was part of my thought process,” he said. “Those poor guys are playing without their point guard. That’s not easy to do.”
“That’s the K-State style of basketball right there,” K-State guard Will Spradling added. “We were getting up in them and controlling the momentum of the game by pressuring and getting steals and layups.”
K-State trailed 25-24 at the half after hitting just 37.5 percent of its shots and getting to the foul line just six times. Part of the reason the press worked better in the second half was due to the Wildcats making 54.5 percent of their field goals, as well as 14 of their 16 free throw attempts. All of that enabled K-State to set up its pressure defense.
“To press people you have to score the basketball, your offense has to put the ball in the rim, you’ve got to get to the foul line, which we really didn’t do in the first half,” Martin said. “When we did score it wasn’t in rhythm, we missed a bunch of good shots early and then we got out of sync.
“But in the second half, our guys (made shots), were real good defensively — even our half-court man was rock solid, our ball-screen defense was better. I’m real proud of these guys for what they did.”
Angel Rodriguez was a key to the second-half run, scoring all 13 of his points in the game’s final 20 minutes. During the Wildcats’ 27-6 run, the freshman point guard, who finished with four assists and five rebounds, scored nine consecutive points to push K-State’s lead to 12.
“The first half is pretty much how I prepared the two days of practice before the game,” Rodriguez said. “I came out flat in practices and in the first half too. Coach Brad (Underwood) talked to me at halftime and told me to pick up my game and energy level and I started making positive plays and that got me going.”
But K-State wouldn’t have been in that position had it not been for Will Spradling’s play in the first half. The sophomore broke free of his shooting slump, scoring 12 of the Wildcats’ 24 first-half points. Spradling finished with a career-high 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3.
K-State trailed 16-6 early, but its ability to climb out of that hole after what had transpired in the previous two games, was an encouraging sign to Martin.
And that wound has now healed.
“When things are good everyone is happy,” he said. “But when things are difficult, you’ve really, really got to pull up your pants and you find out who really gets it done — the guys you can trust and that’s what these guys did.
“We dug a little hole. I told them at halftime ‘you know the one positive of the whole first half is we’re only down one. As sloppily as we played the last 10 minutes, to only be down one, that means we at least tried to fight, now let’s go out and do things the right way.’ That’s what they did and that’s awesome.”