After Mike McGuirl scored off a West Virginia turnover midway through Saturday’s first half, Kansas State was sitting pretty, up one point (16-15) on the No. 12 team in the country, West Virginia. The same Mountaineer club that held the same national ranking when the Wildcats battered them, 84-68, at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 18.
But following McGuirl’s layup, K-State fell into one of its patented scoring droughts that have defined what already has become a forgettable season. Finally, 5:16 of game time later, the Wildcats found the bottom of the basket again. By this time, the Mountaineers had turned a one-point deficit into a seven-point lead (25-17).
K-State could have folded — but it didn’t, scoring 13 of the final 18 points of the half to go into the locker room down just three points, 30-27.
“We just kept talking about grinding it out,” Wildcat head coach Bruce Weber said during a postgame radio interview. “It was 25-17 ... and we just slowly, methodically got stops. We found ways to score on the other end.”
The only problem: The Wildcats’ scoring woes returned in the second half — even stronger than before.
Those continued struggles manufacturing points led to yet another loss for K-State, falling 66-57 at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va., on Saturday.
Both teams found points difficult to come in the early going of the second half until senior Wildcat wing Xavier Sneed — who finished with 11 points, upping his career total to 1,310, passing K-State great Ed Nealy (1,304) for 13th-most in program history — knocked down a pair of free throws with 18:08 remaining.
West Virginia didn’t get on the board in the second half until the 16:26 mark, thanks to a 3-pointer by Chase Harler.
K-State’s (9-12, 2-6 Big 12) futility began immediately thereafter. After Sneed’s two free throws, it took the Wildcats nearly 10 minutes to reach the double-digit mark in the second half. With 8:33 to play, David Sloan — the Wildcats’ leading scorer on the day with 13 points to go along with a team-best three assists — mercifully posted the team’s 10th point of the second half.
During that chunk of game time spanning from Sneed’s two free throws to Sloan’s layup, the Mountaineers (17-4, 5-3) outscored the Wildcats 19-7, upping their advantage to 49-37.
“They hit a few and got it inside and scored in that stretch,” Weber said. “It wasn’t like a quick blowout; it was more of a steady (thing). They got it to 12, we cut it back to nine. It’s a tough game to play, and they are very, very physical and it’s hard to officiate.”
K-State drew within eight points four times in the final six minutes, but that’s as close as it got to West Virginia, which improved to 11-0 at home this season.
“It’s tough to win here,” said Weber, who fell to 9-10 in his matchups with West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “I told our guys ... they beat Texas by 38. They beat TCU by 32 and they even beat Texas Tech by 12. And then the other night they beat Missouri by (23). It’s scary when you look at that, but we were right there, hanging in there. We just ... a few more shots would (have been) a big, big difference in the game.”
Namely, shots from the 3-point line.
The Wildcats shot a dismal 17.6% (3-for-17) from long range, their second-worst outing of the season, only incrementally better than their 17.4% effort (4 of 23) at UNLV in November.
“We had some foul trouble,” Weber said, “but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to make a few of those 3s.”
That the Mountaineers didn’t exactly set the world on fire from distance, going just 6 of 19 themselves, only added to Weber’s anguish at another single-digit loss.
“When you really study the stats, free throws are the same,” he said. “Three-(point) field goals are the difference, and those were the three 3s. That was really the difference in the game.”
The defeat aside, Weber said he was proud of his team. The Mountaineers, who have been dominant at home this season, never led by more than 14 points. K-State actually outscored West Virginia in the paint, 28-22, despite the hosts’ dynamic interior duo of Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. In fact, Culver was the lone Mountaineer to even score more than 10 points; he posted game-highs in points (19) and rebounds (14) for the 15th double-double of his career.
Weber wanted the team to show some spirit.
“We battled. That’s all,” he said. “I asked them to battle and they battled.”
The Wildcats have no time to feel sorry for themselves as it is. They play again Monday against Baylor, the nation’s top-ranked team. After Saturday’s loss, Weber told his players to wrap things up quickly, from showering to seeing family members in attendance. Then it’s off to the airport to return to Manhattan and prepare for the Bears.
Weber admits he saw Baylor’s success coming — in a manner of speaking.
“I told (Baylor coach) Scott (Drew) before this season that I thought he could be special,” Weber said. “Then they lost (Mario) Kegler and I thought, ‘Ahhhh.’ And then (Tristan) Clark has had his issues, but they’re almost better. They’re very, very tough.”
Tougher, Weber believes, than in years past.
“They guard very well,” he said. “Obviously, they haven’t been a man (defense) team, but now they’re a man team and they can still go zone at times.”
Weber said his players’ focus and preparation will be tested in the hours until Monday’s 8 p.m. tipoff arrives. And while he wouldn’t mind a sellout crowd at Bramlage Coliseum greeting the team Monday night, he said it will take far more than fan support to rattle the Bears’ cage.
“You’re not going to get (a win) easily,” Weber said. “You’re really going to have to battle against them.”