Barry Brown heard the play call. But he rejected it.
Penetrating into the lane, Brown drove past West Virginia defender Wesley Harris. Fellow Mountaineer Derek Culver met Brown at the hoop, jumping with his arms straight up. Brown absorbed the contact and laid it off the glass.
Brown, Kansas State’s senior guard and undisputed leader, gave the team a 70-69 lead.
After a defensive stop and a free throw by Xavier Sneed, the Wildcats (11-4, 1-2) walked away with a 71-69 victory at Bramlage Coliseum.
Afterward, Brown said he dismissed the play head coach Bruce Weber originally had drawn up. Weber, sitting to Brown’s left, conceded he was glad Brown improvised.
“He made the right read,” Weber said.
Brown credited a tip from assistant coach Brad Korn for helping him correctly decipher how to attack the Mountaineers’ defense on his go-ahead bucket.
“I remember Coach Korn kept saying, ‘You’ve been going over the screen, you’ve been going over the screen. They keep going under it. So right before you go over the screen, reject it.’ ... I just tried to play strong and go up and finish,” said Brown, who scored a game-high 29 points to go along with a career-high-tying six steals. “And I was able to finish.”
Even so, the game wasn’t over.
After Brown’s drive-and-score, 29 seconds still remained. Following a timeout, Culver put up a jumper for the Mountaineers. Sneed soared into the air for a rebound and was quickly fouled.
“I just saw them wind the clock down and then they threw the ball to Culver, and No. 10 (Jermaine Haley) ran off a handoff and then tried to go downhill,” Brown said. “I guess if he didn’t have it, they wanted to throw it back to Culver. And then he ended up getting the ball and putting the shot up, and we all just tried to box out for the rebound. ‘X’ ended up getting the rebound, thankfully, and that was it.”
Weber couldn’t have been more pleased, noting his team did a great job “walling up” against any potential forays to the basket by West Virginia.
“From my view, unless it went off the glass, I didn’t think it was going in,” Weber said. “So we did a good job of not giving them any angles and playing strong. We went back and forth as a staff: Do you zone? Do you man? And we just felt, ‘Let’s do what we do well,’ and we were able to stop them.”
Sneed subsequently went 1-for-2 at the line, putting K-State up 71-69 — yet after missing the second attempt, it gave West Virginia one last chance to tie or win with three ticks remaining.
But the Mountaineers (8-7, 0-3) never got a shot off.
In the process, the Wildcats made history: With 18:49 remaining, they trailed by 21 (42-21). After outscoring the Mountaineers 50-27 the rest of the way, the Wildcats set a school record for largest deficit overcome to win a game, surpassing an 18-point comeback victory at Missouri on Feb. 19, 1977.
In the early going, the contest was far more similar to a more recent game than one 40-plus years ago. It was nearly an exact replica of K-State’s previous outing, because for the second time in as many games, its offense started ice cold. And for the second game in a row, the Wildcats improved by leaps and bounds in the second half.
In Saturday’s 63-57 loss at then-No. 11 Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, K-State missed its first 13 field goal attempts before the ball finally went through the basket at the 9:13 mark.
The Wildcats barely were better Wednesday. They made their first shot — a fast-break layup courtesy of Brown — at the 16:04 mark. They wouldn’t make another until seven more minutes of game time passed. By that time, the Mountaineers had stretched their lead to 20-5. K-State limped into the locker room down 36-21 — matching its halftime deficit (34-19) from Saturday.
Once the teams returned to the floor, it continued to follow Saturday’s script: K-State’s offense, so pitiful in the first half, came alive in the second. Against the Red Raiders, the Wildcats drew within one point with 6:56 to play before ultimately losing by six.
Brown and fellow guard Mike McGuirl made sure the Wildcats wouldn’t suffer the same fate Wednesday. The pair combined to score 47 of K-State’s 71 points, with 35 coming after halftime.
Brown’s game-high 29 points — which pushed him over the 1,500-point barrier for his career, making him only the ninth player in school history to accomplish that feat — came on 9-for-14 shooting from the field and hitting 10 of his 12 attempts from the free throw line.
“I think we just moved the ball well and I was able to pick my spots and attack downhill,” Brown said. “I read what they gave me, my teammates passed me the ball, swing, swing, swing, and we were able to attack downhill, set some ball screens, and read the defense and take what they gave me.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who held the same position at K-State during the 2006-07 season, was at a loss for words about the Mountaineers’ inability to defend Brown given his players’ knowledge of the senior’s tendencies.
“We tried everybody on him. It wasn’t like he did it against one particular guy,” Huggins said. “The puzzling thing to me is, he has it on the right side, he’s a very heavy right-handed driver, and a very heavy right-handed finisher, and we continued to let him drive it right. It’s not like they weren’t told. It’s not like we don’t practice it.”
McGuirl had a career-high 18 points, with a 7-of-12 effort overall and 4-for-6 from behind the 3-point arc. Making his first attempt, a 3-pointer at the 4:08 mark of the first half, was important for McGuirl’s confidence. Seeing it go through the basket, McGuirl said, helped him settle in immediately.
Everything else flowed from there.
“I got some open looks and so did other people,” he said. “Everybody stepped up and made shots.”
Mirroring his disgust about its lack of success versus Brown, Huggins was equally frustrated his players apparently forgot the scouting report on McGuirl.
“We knew he could shoot. He’s not a straight-line driver like Brown is, but we knew he could make shots,” Huggins said. “I think everybody but the guy guarding him knew that, actually. The shot he made, we’re in front of him and they’re standing there looking at each other. We let him step into a shot. That’s the first one he made, and that’s really the one that got him going, and I’ve got a guy just standing there watching him shoot it. You never, ever give up step-in shots. We gave up a step-in shot. Those are easy shots.”
After the best outing of his college career, McGuirl said Wednesday’s victory doubling as the largest comeback win in school history didn’t add special significance in his mind.
“I look at it as, ‘A win is a win,’” he said. “I remember we came out of halftime and Barry said to all of us, ‘If you don’t think you can win, then don’t even get in the game (or) step on the court.’ That’s the mentality we needed, because we should have come out in the second half expecting that we should come back and win, and we did.”
Taking a deep breath, Weber said he couldn’t praise his team’s resiliency enough. Staring another defeat squarely in the face, and at the risk of dropping to 0-3 in conference play against the only other winless team in the league, the Wildcats didn’t quit.
That, Weber said, is commendable.
“I told them, ‘Tough times always end. Tough people don’t,’” Weber said. “So they showed some toughness, some competitive spirit tonight. There’s no doubt about that.”