Jerome Tang could have reacted in two ways after Kansas State’s narrow 80-76 loss to Iowa State Tuesday night at the Hilton Coliseum.
It had to be frustrating that the Wildcats came so close to bursting the Hilton Magic bubble in 5th place and got nothing. But instead, Tang opted for the half-full approach, and with good reason.
After all, the Wildcats are still 17-3 and tied with Iowa State (15-4) and Texas for first place in the Big 12 at 6-2.
“I thought that was just going to be an amazing Big 12 game,” Tang said after the Wildcats became the first team to play Iowa State in single digits on their home court. “The setting was amazing.
“Obviously we wanted to win but what we really wanted to see was how much we improved compared to a week ago.”
Tang was referring to an 82-68 loss at TCU 10 days earlier where the Wildcats fell behind early and were never in the game. That wasn’t true against Iowa State, even when the Cyclones drew by 10 points with 11 1/2 minutes left.
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“When we had two good wins against TCU (and) they suffered a loss that they probably should have won, they were just tougher than us,” Tang said work done than us.
“And that was a challenge for our boys. And we knew that environment was very different than TCU. These fans have always been some of the best fans in the country and one of my favorite places to come and compete.”
But when Iowa State assembled a 12-2 run to go up to 52-42 with a 3-pointer from Gabe Kalscheur, the Wildcats didn’t back down. Instead, they came back minutes later with a 10-1 run of their own to get high off the glass on a Markquis Nowell layup within 1.
But in the end, Iowa State was just a little bit better.
“I’m very proud of our boys, how we reacted, how we played with composure at the right moment,” Tang said. “(But) I always say that big players have to make big games in big moments, and I thought , the young men at Iowa State did that.”
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Maize High School product Caleb Grill, who played 25 1/2 minutes due to a back injury, hit his only shot, a 3-pointer at the 5:19 mark to put Iowa State 4 ahead. K-State responded with 3-pointers from Ismael Massoud and Nowell, plus three baskets from Keyontae Johnson down the stretch.
But ISU big man Osun Osunniyi was even better in the final four minutes, scoring half of his 16 points in crunch time.
“We played a top 10 team along the way and they have a lot of credit to give,” said Nowell, who led K-State by 23 points. “They overtook us at times and they got more points in the paint.
“I felt like they’re the toughest team, but we’ve gotten a lot better since last week when we played TCU, so all we have to do is watch the movie and move on from that game.”
That’s not to say the Wildcats were flawless. Despite turning the ball just once more than Iowa State (14-13), the Cyclones conceded the errors for 25 points to just 13 for K-State.
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And don’t let Tang start with second chance points.
“I told the guys in the dressing room that they’re just more efficient than us with turnovers,” Tang said. “And then the points for the second chance. For me that’s the biggest thing, seven to 17 points for the second chance.
Iowa State, trailing at halftime for the first time this year at Hilton (33-31), shot 62.5% from the field in the second half and scored 4 of 7 3-pointers after going 1-9 had gone first 20 minutes and were 15 of 19 from the foul line after the break.
The Cyclones also overtook K-State 28-20, despite a high 10 from Johnson, who also scored 15 points. The problem was the big men Nae’Qwan Tomlin, Abayomi Iyiola and Massoud, all of whom were knocked off the boards together in over 70 minutes.
“All three of my greats, having zero rebounds in the minutes that they’ve been playing, that just can’t happen, and it’s not a blow to them,” Tang said. “It’s a blow to us as employees. We have to do a better job and just help them, and we will.”
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Osunniyi, who averaged 8.9 points, proved to be defensively strong for the Wildcats, especially at the end. Not only was he 4 of 7 off the floor, he also pulled eight fouls and converted 8 of 11 free throws.
“We really just have to lead the post and try to make it harder for them to catch and express offense rather than have them catch deeper in the paint and give them a good look,” Johnson said. “So just try to push them out and improve the guards’ ball pressure to make it harder for them to get the ball in.”
K-State takes a break from the Big 12 on Saturday when they host Florida in a 5 p.m. SEC/Big 12 Challenge game at the Bramlage Coliseum.
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University esports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @arnegreen.