WACO, Texas — Bruce Weber begged. He pleaded. To no avail.
Weber, Kansas State’s head coach, had warned his team against overlooking Texas A&M. That attention to detail cost K-State its four-game win streak Jan. 26, falling to the Aggies — which had lost six of their previous seven games entering that contest — on the road 65-53.
The Wildcats nearly slipped up again Saturday against a shorthanded Baylor team.
But the Wildcats made the plays when they counted most, overcoming a seven-point deficit in the second half and holding on for a 70-63 victory at the Ferrell Center.
“Those guys, they took it at us right from the beginning,” Weber said. “They were quicker, they were physical — they’re as physical a team as there is in the league. Our leadoff clip video was them just crashing the glass, knocking you over, playing hard and diving. And (assistant) Coach (Brad) Korn just called it, ‘Baylor Basketball.’ They’re just playing so physical.”
It marked the Wildcats’ eighth-straight Big 12 win after starting 0-2, improving to 18-5 overall. It’s K-State’s longest win streak since the inception of the Big 12, and its longest regular-season conference winning streak overall since it ripped off 11 straight victories in the Big Eight Conference in 1974.
With the win, K-State remained at the top of the Big 12 standings.
But the Bears (15-8, 6-4) didn’t make it easy on the Wildcats.
And they did so with two starters ruled out just prior to tipoff.
Already without the services of Tristan Clark and Jake Lindsey, out with season-ending injuries, starters Makai Mason (toe) and King McClure (knee) were ruled out 15 minutes before Saturday’s 5 p.m. game time.
But the hosts shrugged off the latest injuries woes, hanging tough the entire first half, and leading by as many as five (17-12) in the opening 20 minutes. It wasn’t until Weber called timeout with exactly two minutes remaining in the half that K-State took control.
Weber’s message in the 30-second huddle: to be the tougher team.
“They were getting to the basket, and those were just breakdowns on our part,” said senior guard Kamau Stokes, who made a jumper out of the timeout and scored a game-high 20 points. “We were beating ourselves right there. We had to really lock in and keep that ball out of the lane, and rebound the ball as well. So that’s all Coach was saying. 'We’ve got to be tough, and we’ve got to execute on offense.'”
Down 29-25, K-State ended on a 6-0 run to take a 31-29 edge into the locker room.
That advantage came despite the Bears shooting more accurately from the field (48.1 percent to 41.9) and beyond the 3-point arc (27.3 percent to 21.4).
The difference was at the free throw line.
The Wildcats went 2-for-2, with both makes courtesy of senior forward Dean Wade. The Bears did not attempt a free throw in the first half.
But the Bears wouldn’t go away after the break.
In the second half, they took their largest lead, 48-41, with 9:50 remaining.
Then, on back-to-back possessions, K-State swung the momentum in its favor.
Third-year sophomore guard Cartier Diarra knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to three. Then Baylor guard Mark Vital fouled Stokes in the middle of a 3-point attempt the next time down the court.
Stokes sank all three free throws, and the Wildcats were within one point at 48-47.
From there, the Wildcats established control, outscoring the Bears 23-15 the rest of the way.
And just as he did in K-State’s victory over Kansas on Tuesday, Diarra provided another highlight-reel play in the second half, keeping the ball in play for a steal and passing it down the court to a streaking Barry Brown — all in one motion, in midair — for a fast-break dunk to push the Wildcats’ lead to 64-56 with 1:49 to play.
“I just used my athleticism, jumped and I used a little hangtime,” he said. “I was reading the court to see where everybody was at, and I saw Barry looking like, ‘Throw it long.’ So I threw it long and he ran and got it before the Baylor player and got the slam.”
The stellar finish to both halves for K-State, Weber said, likely had to do with Baylor’s lack of depth.
“I think they wore down at the end of the first half, and maybe the end of the second half,” he said. “Obviously, we made some plays, made some shots, and then our defense picked it up a little bit down the stretch which probably was the difference.”
Baylor head coach Scott Drew didn’t dispute Weber’s assessment: his team simply ran out of gas.
“First, you exerted a lot energy and effort,” he said, “Second of all, you had a lot of guys playing more minutes than normal, so I think that would be natural.”
Freddie Gillespie, who scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting for Baylor, conceded that the shortened bench took its toll.
“I’ll be honest: I haven’t played these types of minutes in a long time,” said Gillespie, who played 31 minutes. “I was a little gassed, (so) it’s something I’ve got to get used to.”
Weber couldn’t find enough positive things to say about the Bears’ resiliency in the face of two more key pieces sidelined. And he said it likely lulled his players into a false sense of security in the early going, noting they “didn’t have quite the edge” they needed.
His players, Weber said, underestimated Gillespie. They underestimated Jared Butler, who scored 13 points. And they underestimated Devonte Bandoo, who made his first career start in a conference game and led Baylor with a team-high 15 points.
“All of those guys, I don’t think they understood it,” Weber said. “The coaches did. We did. But I don’t think they did.
“And then all of a sudden, whoo! They got wiggle, they’re going, they’re coming at you, they’re jumping on your back, they’re flying around.”
Eventually, his players adjusted and responded.
Their reward was remaining at the pinnacle of the Big 12 and extending a run of conference success not seen at K-State in 45 years.
“We had to stand up and be men,” Weber said. “You’ve got to give our guys a little bit of credit for fighting and grinding it out down the stretch.”