Kansas State was watching Iowa State close in quickly, and at exactly the worst time.
So head coach Jeff Mittie made the right decision, and at exactly the right time.
With about five minutes left, the Cyclones had trimmed the Wildcats’ lead, at one point as wide as 16, to five. On this particular possession, the hosts didn’t score, in large part because K-State forward Jasauen Beard contested an Iowa State 3-pointer.
Mittie saw something, though. He could tell Beard was gassed.
“‘J. Beard’ was coming off being fairly sick,” Mittie added.
So as the fourth-quarter clock approached three minutes, Mittie pulled Beard for backup point guard Savannah Simmons, substituting a starter who had played 25 minutes for a reserve who had played less than half that.
It paid off in a big way.
Twenty-five seconds of game time later, Simmons cashed a 3-pointer from the right wing, sparking the 7-0 run K-State used to create a final push and seal a 60-51 win Wednesday night at Bramlage Coliseum.
The triple proved critical on its own merits, but particularly because it highlighted the way the Wildcats iced a win playing a style they aren’t used to — while two of their best players produced games that reflected it.
Forwards Ayoka Lee and Peyton Williams, who entered averaging 16.3 and 15.5 points, respectively, produced 11 points apiece.
If it sounds like each experienced off games, it shouldn’t. Mittie pushed back on that assertion. One of the reasons why his star forward tandem didn’t supply the sterling games they usually do, he said, was because both teams had so few possessions.
That didn’t leave Lee or Williams much time to put up their usual numbers.
“We only got 52 shots,” Mittie said. “This was a low-possession game.”
Enter the K-State guards.
Point guard Angela Harris delivered one of her most complete games: 11 points, four rebounds, six assists and six steals. Chrissy Carr struggled through a 3-for-12 shooting outing to provide eight points, including a key triple early in the fourth quarter that ballooned the Wildcats’ lead to nine.
Then there was Simmons’ trey in the final three minutes.
Plus, all those contributions become more critical when one remembers Mittie’s comments about the limited number of possessions his team had.
“The last 10 seconds (of the shot) clock, we wanted our guards to be aggressive,” Mittie said. “I thought it was a pretty good balance.”
Here’s another reason why K-State’s guards were pressed into outsized roles on Wednesday: Iowa State’s zone defense.
The Cyclones didn’t just deploy a zone. When a K-State guard had the ball, looking to make a post entry pass, they sandwiched defenders around whichever forward was closest to the ball — Lee or Williams. That made it harder for the Wildcats to get them the ball.
They succeeded on a few occasions — K-State’s final two baskets came from Williams and Lee, in that order, both inside — but on others, Harris, Carr and Simmons had to make plays.
It wasn’t that easy. Each had to turn down open outside looks, which the Cyclones encouraged, to swing the ball and get better ones.
It was tricky, though, because the Wildcats are anything but sharpshooters. Entering Wednesday, K-State was hitting just 26% of its 3-pointers, good for dead last in the Big 12. Their best shooter, statistically at least, is Simmons, who entered hitting long balls at a 37% clip.
“She’s probably our best 3-point shooter right now,” Harris said.
She proved why at a critical time — and by turning down some of the open triples the Cyclones gave her.
Not that it was tempting to shoot them every time.
“Early in the shot clock, not really,” said Harris, referencing whether turning down open looks was difficult. “As a team, we’ve found our identity later on in the season. We know we’re trying to get the ball inside, whether it’s a pass into the post or a drive to the rim from a guard. Later in the shot clock, under five seconds, it has to go up and we pray it goes in — or that ‘Yoki’ (Lee) rebounds the ball.”
The good news for K-State is that these types of games haven’t occurred often. Iowa State plays like few other teams in the Big 12, and few teams demand that style like K-State, so the Wildcats will enter their final three regular-season games expecting defenses to play accordingly.
Another way Iowa State is unique: How its players celebrate wins.
Back on Jan. 22, as the final seconds of the Cyclones’ 73-59 home win over the Wildcats ticked off the clock, one of Iowa State’s players chucked the ball in the air.
“I thought it was disrespectful,” Harris said.
So on Wednesday, as Harris dribbled out the last few seconds of K-State’s win, she chatted with Carr at midcourt.
“Last time we played them, didn’t their point guard throw the ball up like that?” Carr said.
“Yeah, that was disrespectful,” Harris responded. “I’m going to throw this ball up.”
She did exactly that, smiling as she flung the ball skyward, laughing as she told the story after the game.
“One of the areas we need to get better at is forgetting things,” Mittie said with a grin. “Anyway, we’re working on that.”