Kansas State finally shook off its first-half offensive struggles. Finally had a halftime lead. But the Wildcats didn’t capitalize on their early success well enough Monday to remain undefeated.
After jumping out to a 9-0 advantage and leading Pittsburgh by as many as 10 on three occasions in the first half, the result was in doubt until the final minute.
With 11 seconds left, Panther guard Xavier Johnson converted a driving, go-ahead layup, lifting the ACC club to a 63-59 victory at the Fort Myers Tip-Off tournament in Fort Myers, Florida.
“Their kid made a tough, hanging jumper,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said on the Wildcats’ postgame radio show. “It probably hit every part of the backboard and rim and rolled in. You’ve got to give them credit.”
Early on, it appeared the Wildcats (4-1) might cruise. They put nine points on the board — seven from true freshman forward Antonio Gordon, who made his first career start — before Pittsburgh managed a single one. The Panthers (5-2) finally ended their scoring drought at the 15:59 mark of the half on a jumper from Ryan Murphy. It didn’t mean much initially, as the Wildcats maintained an edge of varying margins all the way until the end of the half.
In the final four minutes of the half, however, the Panthers ripped off a 9-3 run, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to 30-28 heading into the locker room.
“I thought the key to the game (was), we’re up 10 in the first half, and we gamble a couple times and give them five, six straight points,” Weber said. “That put them back in the game. You’ve got to make them earn things. You’ve got to be disciplined and poised. We’re still new and young. We’ve got to figure out when to go, when to pass.”
Pittsburgh scored the opening points after the break, knotting the game at 30-all before K-State poked back ahead. The Panthers took their first lead with 15:56 to play on a putback dunk by Justin Champagnie.
From there, the lead changed hands 12 more times in a game that also saw five ties.
After Johnson’s go-ahead basket dropped, Cartier Diarra, who scored a team-high 13 points Monday, tried to respond with a game-winning shot of his own. But on his way to the hoop, officials whistled him for an offensive foul on a charging call.
Diarra didn’t agree.
“I believe it wasn’t a charge,” he said. “Simple play. I mean, you know, I don’t like to speak on refereeing, but it is what it is. We didn’t come out with a win like we wanted to.”
Weber said he was “yelling for a twist-ball screen” while Diarra drove toward the basket.
“I wish I would have called timeout,” Weber said. “I just wanted to see what was going to happen and then go into a play. But it’s part of learning, and Carti’s got to learn: Let it happen. If there’s nothing there, then let us have a play that we practiced today. It didn’t happen.”
The Wildcats wouldn’t have needed late-game heroics from Diarra — or anyone else — had it not had so many self-inflicted errors. Most noticeably at the free throw line.
K-State made just 3 of its 13 free throws; Pittsburgh, on the other hand, sank 18 of its 21 attempts.
“Obviously,” Weber said, “that’s a big difference in the game.”
There were two more hard-to-believe stats the Panthers overcame to win.
They committed 21 turnovers against just two assists.
And they went 1-for-16 (6.3%) beyond the 3-point line.
“A lot of the stats are definitely in our favor. 1-for-16, 21 turnovers,” Weber said. “We go 10-for-20 from 3. But to their credit, they battled, they fought. It was a hard-fought game early in the season. You got to learn from it and grow.”
The frustrating nature of their first defeat aside, Weber found a pair of bright spots: the play of the two freshmen Gordons, Antonio and DaJuan.
A guard, DaJuan Gordon scored 12 points, making him the only K-State player other than Diarra to break into double digits. DaJuan Gordon scored all of his points in the first half, coming off the bench to give the Wildcats a spark.
“I thought DaJuan was really good in the first half,” Weber said. “He gave us some things.”
After his early scoring spurt, Antonio Gordon didn’t manage another point. But he did grab a team- and career-high seven rebounds, and set another personal best with three steals.
Weber said he couldn’t ask for much more.
“A freshman playing in this atmosphere, a tough game, you’ve got to give him credit,” Weber said. “In 26 minutes, there’s a lot of positive things, there’s no doubt. I love how hard he plays. He made a couple mistakes, but a bunch of the older guys made mistakes, too. That’s just part of it. I’m happy. I’m thrilled with him.”
Weber wasn’t so thrilled that his team didn’t make the plays necessary down the stretch to keep its undefeated record intact.
How players respond at 5 p.m. Wednesday — when it faces Bradley in the third-place game that will air nationally on FS1 — will be a test of their “character” and “togetherness,” Weber said.
A point he emphasized before they took the floor Monday.
“The first thing on the board was, ‘We’ve got to win together.’ I said, ‘If we win together, we lose together.’ Now we’ve got to come back,” Weber said. “It’s a long season. We’re a young team. We gave a heck of an effort tonight, but we just didn’t make the plays.”