PITTSBURGH — It’s funny how the game of basketball, and sports in general, work. That a team can lay it all on the line — play its hearts out for 40 minutes — and still not be good enough to win.
Kansas State fought tooth and nail against No. 1 seed Syracuse on Saturday, battling until the final buzzer. But ultimately the Wildcats’ season ended with a 75-59 loss in the third round of the NCAA tournament at the Consol Energy Center.
“It wasn’t what we wanted,” K-State freshman Angel Rodriguez said. “But we battled, we battled and we battled. We never quit. That makes me proud of who we are.”
The unfortunate thing about basketball is sometimes no matter how good of a look you get on offense, the ball doesn’t go through the net. And no matter how hard and well you defend, the opponent’s shot sometimes finds a way through the cylinder.
That’s what happened to K-State on Saturday. The Wildcats defended, but Syracuse still found a way to make 51 percent of its shots. And at the other end, K-State attacked the Orange’s zone defense and got some good looks, but the ball didn’t go in.
“You can control your effort, you can control your defense, you can’t control the ball going into the basket,” K-State head coach Frank Martin said. “The ball just wouldn’t go in the basket for us.”
K-State shot 31 percent (21-of-67) from the floor, made just 4-of-17 from 3, and yet after an 8-for-34 (23.5 percent) shooting performance in the first half, the Wildcats still only trailed by one point — 25-24.
Syracuse was 9-for-24 from the field and 1-of-4 from 3 in the first half, had surrendered 15 offensive rebounds to K-State and was outworked on the boards by the Wildcats 28-16. Over the final 8:36 of the first half, the Orange made just one field goal and scored just four points.
“I couldn’t have been happier at halftime,” Martin said. “I was ecstatic. I thought we were right where we needed to be.”
But then Syracuse began to catch fire, making tough shots and connecting on the open looks as well. The Orange’s guards began to break down K-State off the dribble in the second half, and as a result, got to the basket for some layups and dunks. And when the Wildcats’ defense stopped the penetration with defensive rotations, Syracuse kicked it out for a couple of open 3s.
The Orange (33-2) made 14-of-21 from the floor in the second half, and buried all five of their 3-point attempts.
“The second half we made shots,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “We haven’t done that lately. It’s been a while since we’ve knocked down shots like that.
“Basketball can be a simple game. When you make some shots from the perimeter, it just changes things completely.”
The game really changed when Jordan Henriquez was whistled for his third foul with 16 minutes remaining. K-State’s 6-foot-11 center — the school’s all-time and single-season record holder in blocked shots, had to go to the bench.
Syracuse took advantage, turning a 34-32 lead into a 41-34 advantage. Martin inserted Henriquez back into the game with 13:27 left, but the Orange managed to extend their lead to 45-34 on a pair of free throws by James Southerland.
“There were three consecutive possessions where they grabbed offensive rebounds and converted them and not just converted them but put fouls on Jordan,” Martin said. “That kind of got them going a little bit. Then I’ve got to take Jordan out because I know they’re going at him so there’s no way he can pick up his fourth one so early. It kind of got away from us.”
K-State, playing without fifth-year senior Jamar Samuels, who was not in uniform due to “eligibility concerns,” was short-handed in the post. When Henriquez went to the bench, the Wildcats’ tallest players on the floor were Shane Southwell (6-6) and freshman Thomas Gipson (6-7).
“We’re already a man down on our frontline,” Martin said. “Then Jordan gets in foul trouble. It just made it difficult. It puts too much responsibility on Thomas, which is not fair to him at this stage in his career.”
K-State pulled within five with 11:08 remaining on a 3-pointer by Rodriguez, but the Orange answered with an 8-0 run over the next 2 minutes to take control. The Wildcats would never get closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Still, Martin was pleased with the fight of his team, which outrebounded Syracuse 41-32 and grabbed 25 offensive boards.
“Twenty-five offensive rebounds, (four) turnovers (in the second half) — talk about kids going out there, lining up and laying it on the line for you,” he said.
The loss put an end to an up and down season, filled with highs and some lows. K-State, which finishes with a 22-11 record, faced adversity and never succumbed to it this year. For everything this group accomplished — which included wins over three top-10 teams and a third-straight trip to the Big Dance — Martin couldn’t be prouder.
“These guys from day one have just been incredible,” Martin said. “Their refusal to feel inferior to anybody — to line up and play with the class our guys play with, to win the games that we won and to deal with the difficult moments that we dealt with as a team that the season puts on you… to answer the bell every single time. I’m ecstatic to have been lucky enough to coach this group of kids. It’s been an honor.”