It’s hard to imagine a more painful loss for the Kansas State men’s basketball team.
The Wildcats were unable to protect a 17-point lead and lost to rival Kansas 78-75 on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.
The home crowd of 9,737 didn’t know how to react to the wild swings of this game. K-State played at an extremely high level and took a 50-34 lead at halftime thanks to a career game from Nijel Pack, who finished with 35 points. For a while, it seemed as if the Wildcats could do no wrong.
But then the Jayhawks made some defensive adjustments and clawed their way back into the game, eventually pulling ahead in the final seconds on a layup from Ochai Agbaji.
Improbably, this is the second time this month that the Wildcats (10-8, 2-5 Big 12) have blown a 17-point lead. Ouch. But this one will sting more because it came against No. 7 Kansas (16-2, 5-1) when their entire fan base was on the verge of celebrating what would have been a major victory.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Dream game for Nijel Pack
Nijel Pack followed in the footsteps of some of the most beloved players in K-State history by having a career game against the Jayhawks.
Much like Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen before him, Pack did everything he could to help the Wildcats against their biggest rival.
“Nijel Pack played like a first-team All-American,” KU coach Bill Self said. “He may have been the best guard in America today.”
It was fitting that the sophomore guard opened the game with a corner three. That was a sign of things to come.
He went on to make his next six shots. He had 22 points at halftime, a number so large that Self tried a number of different defensive schemes to slow him down. But none of them seemed to work. Not man, not zone, not even a box and one.
Pack was playing with so much confidence that he fired away just about every time he touched the ball. It was a good strategy.
“It was great,” Pack said. “I loved the energy in the stands. My teammates were looking for me. It was great to be able to shoot the way I did. It was great, personally but it doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, we got a loss. Nobody’s ever going to talk about a loss.”
This might be an exception.
Pack was so hot against KU that K-State reserve Logan Landers yelled the words “you can’t guard him” at KU defenders after most of his buckets. Self laughed after Pack drained a contested three early in the second half, calling it a “pro shot.” There wasn’t much else he could do.
He was in the zone. He was on fire. He was unconscious. There was no hyperbole for the way he was playing.
Pack cooled off in the second half with the Jayhawks focusing their defensive efforts on him, but he still found ways to get to the basket and make important shots for the Wildcats.
He finished with 35 points. His previous career high was 26. It was the best individual game from a K-State player in this rivalry since Pullen scored 38 against KU in 2011.
The first half was a thing of beauty
K-State has never looked better under Bruce Weber, or any other coach for that matter, than it did during the first half of this game.
The Wildcats played like an offensive juggernaut on their way to 50 points in the opening 20 minutes.
Pack led the way with 22 points by draining six three-pointers. Markquis Nowell had 11 points and seemed to make every contested layup he attempted, no matter the level of difficulty. But just about everyone wearing the home white jerseys was hot. Selton Miguel made shots. So did Luke Kasubke and Mark Smith.
The Wildcats led 50-34 at halftime, and there was nothing for the home fans to complain about.
Under Weber, K-State typically tries to slow down games and win with its defense. But that was not the case early on against the Jayhawks. The Wildcats played entertaining, up-tempo basketball. Fans were jumping with joy after each bucket.
That was a welcome change for a team that hadn’t previously scored 70 points in a conference game.
Things slowed down in the second half, and the Wildcats eventually lost. But that doesn’t change how fun that first half was to watch.
They wanted it more
Shortly after the Jayhawks pulled off their comeback victory, Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson told a group of reporters that “we wanted it more.”
That is hard to argue based on the way they rebounded the basketball against K-State.
It’s not an exaggeration to say KU won this game on the glass. The Jayhawks grabbed 45 rebounds and limited the Wildcats to 23.
“They just pounded us on the glass,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I mean, it’s pretty simple. They just kept coming at us. They were determined.”
David McCormack led the way with 15 boards. Wilson had 10.
They both were more effective inside than the entirety of K-State’s front court.
K-State hasn’t gotten much production from its big men this season. A quality center or power forward seems to be a missing piece. That was once again the case against the Jayhawks.
Starting center Davion Bradford had four points and two rebounds, backup Kaosi Ezeagu had one point and no rebounds, Carlton Linguard finished with three points and one rebound and Ismael Massoud had no points and no rebounds. Add it all up and the Wildcats got eight points and three rebounds from their big men ... total.
None of K-State’s players finished with more than four rebounds. The Wildcats easily could have won with a marginally better effort inside.
“They have got to get better,” Weber said of K-State’s big men. “That’s a fact of life. I’m not downgrading them. They are good guys. They just have to be better.”