The exclamation mark of a defensive possession Kansas State used to wrap up its 71-69 win over West Virginia on Wednesday night went something like this: as the game clock ticked under 10 seconds, West Virginia guard Jermaine Haley dribbled on the perimeter. He lofted a pass to forward Derek Culver, who handed it right back to a cutting Haley just outside the 3-point arc.
Haley drove to his right and took one dribble before throwing it back to Culver. The 6-foot-10 forward took one dribble of his own, and at this point, two Wildcats — swingman Xavier Sneed and point guard Kamau Stokes — had rallied to the free-throw line to double-team Culver.
It worked to perfection. Culver had plenty of time — six seconds to be exact — but he threw up an awkward one-handed shot, which glanced off the back of the rim and into the hands of Sneed.
Sneed was then fouled and hit 1 of 2 free throws on the other end, and West Virginia didn’t get a shot off in the three seconds before the final buzzer sounded.
West Virginia’s final two possessions symbolized the kind of defense K-State played in its first Big 12 win of the season.
“From my view, unless it went off the glass, I didn’t think it was going in,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said of Culver’s shot. “We did a good job of not giving them any angles and playing strong.”
K-State’s defense resembled a roller coaster of sorts over the course of the game: porous, then stifling, porous again then stifling again.
West Virginia raced out to a 20-3 lead, which later turned into a 36-21 advantage at halftime. The Mountaineers were hitting shots from inside and out, on mid-range looks and easy layups, but that slowed down as the first half went on and K-State started getting stops on defense.
West Virginia didn’t shoot particularly differently in the second half — 46 percent compared to 44 in the first 20 minutes — but K-State’s largest comeback in school history was, among other things, a function of its defense.
The Wildcats opened the second half with a full-court press, sending three players to hound Mountaineers as they tried to inbound the ball. That’s when the hosts did a chunk of their damage, scoring 21 points off turnovers in the second half.
In fact, the four-point play Sneed converted on to give K-State its first lead of the game came off a West Virginia turnover.
“In the second half, I didn’t know we had 21 points off turnovers,” said K-State guard Barry Brown, whose go-ahead layup with 30 seconds left also came off a turnover. “I think that’s kind of what sparked our run.”
All told, K-State forced West Virginia into 17 turnovers and scored 25 points off them.
Brown, a Big 12 All-Defensive Team selection last season, swiped six steals — four in the second half.
That was emblematic, perhaps, of the difference in the defense K-State played in the first and second halves.
In the first, West Virginia turned the ball over on 19 percent of its possessions. That number jumped to 34 percent in the second half, when K-State played a zone defense at times and deployed a full-court press, which resulted in live-ball turnovers and a frenetic pace.
The numbers also reveal that K-State shot 29 percent in the first half. In the second, the Wildcats shot a blistering 62 percent from the field.
You can thank K-State’s defense — which ranked second in the league entering the night — for that.
“We knew what (West Virginia) guys’ tendencies were. We knew where guys liked to pick their spots,” Brown said. “We were able to be in help when we felt like we needed to be, and I guess it worked.”
By the same token, though, this wasn’t K-State’s best game on defense. The Wildcats have held opponents to as few as 41 points. Even in its 63-57 loss to No. 11 Texas Tech on Saturday, K-State forced 19 turnovers and held the Red Raiders into 10 fewer points than their season average.
So even in the Wildcats’ win on Wednesday, when they didn’t play their best defense of the season, they still came away with a victory.
That’s encouraging to Brown and Co.
“It shows that we’re not just a defensive team that can’t score,” Brown said. “We can still make plays on the offensive end. I’m not going to say our defense isn’t there, because we played good defense — especially down the stretch — but it’s just good to know that we can score the ball.”