MANHATTAN — Jerome Tang wasn’t fooled by Texas Tech’s conference record, and neither were his Kansas State players.
The fact that they were staring at an eight-point, second-half deficit against the last-place Red Raiders was just the price of doing business in the Big 12 this season.
But the next three minutes also showed why the No. 15-ranked Wildcats find themselves alone atop the league standings and Tech is at the bottom looking up.
K-State calmly ran off 11 straight points to grab its first lead of the half, and after Texas Tech evened the score, tacked on another 10 on the way to a 68-58 victory Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.
The Wildcats improved to 17-2 overall with a 6-1 Big 12 record, and Texas Tech, which suffered just its second double-digit conference loss, fell to 10-9 and 0-7. The fact that Kansas and Iowa State lost left K-State a game ahead of the Jayhawks, Cyclones and Texas.
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“We knew this game was going to be like this,” Tang said. “We knew it was going to be a 40-minute grinder, and that every possession was going to matter, and they would make runs and we would make runs.
“I think our guys understanding that mindset going in, (they) didn’t allow themselves to get flustered by anything.”
Pop Isaacs had just grabbed a defensive rebound and gone coast-to-coast to cap a 10-2 Texas Tech run for a 45-37 Raider lead when Tang called timeout with 13:11 to play. He calmly explained the situation, and the Wildcats took it from there.
“In the timeout I told them, ‘Hey, we’re going to score, and then it’s going to be a six-point game.’ That’s a two-possession game,” Tang said. “And there’s a lot of time on the clock, and they said, ‘OK,’ and they went out and they executed.”
An Abayomi Iyiola layup, Desi Sills baseline drive and Ismael Massoud’s 3-pointer quickly trimmed it to one point, and Keyontae Johnson followed with his first two baskets of the game. Just that quickly, the Wildcats were in the lead.
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Tech briefly tied the game at 50-50, but an Iyiola free throw and Johnson 3-pointer triggered another 10-point Wildcat spurt, and that was all she wrote.
The fact that K-State was coming off an emotional 83-82 overtime victory over rival Kansas on Tuesday, meant that facing last-place Texas Tech had all the makings of a trap game for the Wildcats.
For roughly 27 minutes, that’s how it played out, with the Red Raiders in front much of the first half and leading 33-28 at intermission on a half-court shot by Isaacs 3-pointer at the buzzer.
K-State point guard Markquis Nowell, who led the Wildcats with 23 points and five assists, wasn’t worried about a hangover from the KU game.
“We have a really good coaching staff, and we have a lot of seniors on the team that keep the group level-headed,” Nowell said. “We don’t try to get too high, (and) we don’t try to get too low.
“We just try to focus the next right thing. So after we celebrated that night, we just went right back to work.”
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Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, according to Tang.
“Frankly, we probably enjoyed the Kansas win too much, and still had a little hangover in our first practice back (on Thursday),” Tang said. “And I had to stop practice and say, ‘Y’all go home, and we’ll come back tonight, because we’re not getting better.’
“We weren’t going 1-0 in practice, and they left, and we brought them back and had some stuff prepared for them. Nothing physical. I’m crazy, but I’m not an idiot. I know we need legs. And the guys saw it and bought into what we showed them and understood and then the next day we had a really good practice (Friday), which led into today.”
But even then, it was a battle. Not that anyone was shocked.
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“It’s the best league in the country. Every game is a game that you’ve got to play tough for 40 minutes,” Nowell said. “There’s not a weak team in this league, and you’ve got to be a dog. You’ve got to be fierce if you want to be in this league.
“To see that Texas Tech is winless, if they were in any other conference, they would be a really good team. But it just shows how competitive this league is.”
Tang, who spent 19 years as a Baylor assistant before taking his first head coaching job at K-State, had an idea before the season started that the conference race would be a dogfight.
“When we were picked 10th in the league, I said, ‘Well, heck, all 10 teams in the conference are going to the NCAA Tournament,’ because I thought we were an NCAA Tournament team,” he said. “There are 10 teams in our conference that are good enough to go to the NCAA Tournament, and every night you’re going to be in a battle, and the game is going to be different.
“Sometimes it’s going to be up and down (and) sometimes it’s going to be a slower pace. Sometimes it’s going to be one thing or another, and you’ve got to be able to adjust. And then not let one loss beat you twice, and be able to move on.”
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So here the Wildcats are with a one-game conference lead. And next up is a road trip to Ames, Iowa, to face an Iowa State team that also has overachieved according to preseason predictions.
“It feels good to be No. 1 in the conference, but our motto is to focus on the next right thing and focus on what’s next, and that’s just taking it one day and one game at a time,” Nowell said. “Being first in this conference could come and go. We have a long season ahead of us and we just try to focus on one at a time.”
Which may just be why the Wildcats are where they are.
“What I do know is that they’re not satisfied,” Tang said. “They don’t think we’re as good as we can be.
“They understand that every day we keep getting better, and they really love basketball.”
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @arnegreen.