“Don’t stop believing.”
It’s been easier said than done for K-State men’s basketball fans this season, but the Wildcats provided a compelling reason to keep the faith with their 84-68 shellacking of the No. 1 Jayhawks, who held the top spot in national polls for less than 24 hours before K-State dealt them their second loss of the season.
Kansas head coach Bill Self said the Wildcats were simply the better team.
“Let’s just call it like it is: that was a beatdown,” Self said. “That was a beatdown. In my opinion, I thought they controlled the game from the opening tip. We were on our heels. Even early on, we were still on our heels and they got control of the game about 21-11, I think.”
From the very beginning of the game, the Wildcats went strong to the basket. The forwards played like they had nothing to fear against Marcus and Markieff Morris, one of the most dangerous tandems in the country. K-State’s audacity paid off, as the team had drawn two fouls each from Marcus and Markieff only halfway through the first half.
Due in part to the foul trouble but also to the Wildcats’ smothering defense, the dynamic duo suffered greatly; Marcus had 10 points but only a single rebound in the first half, and his brother had none of either. Together, they would end up with 16 points and three rebounds, far below what they usually contribute.
Speaking of the Wildcats’ defense, it deflected and denied with an intensity the players had not collectively displayed this season. This made it difficult for the Jayhawks to get the ball inside. In fact, their signature alley-opp worked only once in the half.
“When we were in our straight man (defense), our perimeter guys did a great job of making them catch the ball further out on the floor, and then our bigs paid attention to detail on the post entries they like to make,” said head coach Frank Martin. “We didn’t allow them to get the ball to certain places that make the passes, which kind of them made them kind of hold the basketball rather than swing it all over the place.”
As for the offense of the K-State forwards, sophomore Jordan Henriquez-Roberts battled effectively in the paint, scoring eight points in the first half. It wasn’t just the forwards who got to the rim, though. The Wildcats attacked the paint with abandon. They had 12 points there in the first half, but they also got 15 attempts from the line for their efforts, and they took advantage of 11.
And then, there was Jacob Pullen. The Wildcats’ senior forward attacked the rim to the tune of 23 points in the first 20 minutes of play. He credited his teammates with setting good screens and getting the ball to him in spots on the floor where he could make plays. By the game’s end, he had amassed a career-high 38 points, the second-most points ever by a player in a victory over a top-ranked team.
At halftime, the Wildcats led 42-33. The roar from the stands grew in fervor and volume like an approaching tsunami. Fans began to hope. But with 20 minutes to play, no one was taking anything for granted.
“We were just trying to slow them down because they’re so good when they play fast,” Martin said.
Four minutes into the second half, the Jayhawks had clawed their way back to within five points. This season, the Wildcats have struggled some to maintain energy and urgency for the full 40 minutes. That did not happen on Monday night.
“Last in the first half and then early in the second half, they continued to make pushes,” Martin said. “And our guys, every push they made, our team responded.”
With over 11 minutes to play in the game, the Wildcats had some foul trouble. Referees whistled junior forward Jamar Samuels for his fourth foul, and senior forward Curtis Kelly and sophomore guard Rodney McGruder each had three.
However, K-State employed the smaller lineup it had been experimenting with in recent games, and the team battled.
“We didn’t settle, we didn’t get beat off the dribble, and then defensively we made some switches,” Martin said. “We played a different kind of man-to-man to kind of protect the inside a little more, and we played some zone, and luckily we made free throws.”
Martin continued to explain the significance of those free throws: they allow the K-State defense to set up. The Wildcats slowed the Jayhawks with a 2-2-1 press so they could not just run down and attack.
Really, the Wildcats led for the majority of the game. It still seemed too good to be true with just minutes to play, but when Martin emptied the bench with 50.3 seconds on the clock, Bramlage got on its feet and prepared to join its team on the floor. Pullen said the team understood what the rivalry meant to the fans and said the crowd was amazing.
“The emotion that they bring, it affects us,” Pullen said. “They do a great job. We could see them running to the stairs and getting in position. That energy continues into our huddle. Everybody, they see that energy.”
His freshman year, Pullen felt the magic of defeating Kansas in Manhattan. After coming so close the past two years, he did not want to leave empty-handed again.
“The only year we really made it happen was freshman year, and I wanted that to be this year, regardless of what we had to do,” Pullen said. “I wanted to make sure we won this game.”
Martin is firm in his assertion that the team is always looking to the next game on its schedule. The heartbreaker of a loss to Colorado on Saturday, then, was certainly in the past as the team prepared for Kansas. The coach admitted though, that he did make one mention of it.
“The only thing I did say, Colorado just lost a gutwrenching game to (Texas) A&M before they played us. They found the will to come up in there and bow up, for lack of better words, and beat us,” Martin said. “We had to find that same will.”
Watching the smiles on the players’ faces as the crowd moved from the bleachers to the court, it was evident that the Wildcats did just that.