Down but not out: K-State is going to ‘fight until the last game’

Sophomore forward Wesley Iwundu and the rest of the K-State bench celebrate following a layup by senior forward Nino Williams with 20 seconds left in the second half of the Wildcats' 63-53 defeat of the Cowboys Jan. 24, 2015, in Bramlage Coliseum. (Parker Robb | The Collegian)

K-State head men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and listened. Over the past few weeks, he’s done the talking and much of it hasn’t been reassuring. K-State had suffered their worst losing streak in a decade, lost their star player to a three-game suspension and is facing the reality that they will miss the NCAA Tournament unless it captures a Big 12 Tournament title.

As Weber sat quietly and out of frame, Wesley Iwundu addressed the elephant in the room: the state of the team. The young, soft-spoken sophomore guard leaned up to the microphone and – without hesitation – delivered a clear message to fans and opposing teams alike.

“It just shows that we haven’t given up,” Iwundu said. “We still carry a lot of heart and we still care. The season is not over to us. Never once did we consider quitting or giving up on the season. We are going to fight until the last game.”

Thirty minutes before Weber, Iwundu and senior forward Nino Williams entered the makeshift postgame press conference room in the back of Bramlage Coliseum Saturday, they celebrated another dramatic upset win over a ranked Oklahoma team on the court in front of 12,000 relieved fans.

The story wrote itself. Sophomore guard Marcus Foster returned from his suspension, hit his first 3-pointer and his last, which came with 3.4 seconds remaining on the clock and put K-State ahead for good, 59-56.

The spot of Foster’s game-winning 3-pointer was nearly identical to the shot that won the game in overtime against the Sooners a month earlier. K-State was 9-7, 2-1 then and in the middle of winning five out of six games to take over fist place in the Big 12 standings.

Then came the suspensions, injuries and, subsequently, the five-game losing streak. Still, K-State was fighting. Without Foster’s scoring, it was often ugly, but the team’s effort was never in question.

“Their ball club has been right there,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. “They have fought and maintained great intensity. Credit Coach Weber for that. They lost five in a row, yet they played hard every time out.”

K-State has faced adversity. The Wildcats have faced criticism from inside and outside the program. But according to Weber, Iwundu and Williams, the team has ultimately grown up. That’s kept them fighting despite the recent sub-.500 record and consistent groans from doubters.

“We’ve tried to stay very positive as a staff,” Weber said. “Sometimes they don’t think that when you watch film, but a fact is a fact — you didn’t jump to the ball or you didn’t run back or whatever. A lot of times young men take that as criticism where it’s really coaching. That’s when you start growing up as a player … Our staff has done a good job, we’ve tried to stay focused. The guys have done a good job, they’ve battled. It’s good that good things happened tonight.”

Odds are that K-State will miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season. The Big 12 is stacked with too much talent at the top and K-State hasn’t fared well in Kansas City, Missouri at the Phillips 66 Big 12 Tournament. But don’t tell Weber, Iwundu, Williams or the rest of the K-State men’s basketball team that, though. To them, there’s still time left with effort to give and potential upsets to carry out.

If the past few weeks have been any indication, K-State certainly isn’t giving up yet.

“I’m proud that they’ve kept battling and come to practice every day and tried to get better,” Weber said. “There’s always hope. There’s still games left — there’s hope. Right now we just have to focus on TCU. That’s all we can focus on.”