March 14, 2014
By Kelly McHugh
When things went wrong for No. 5-seed K-State in yesterday's Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship matchup with No. 4-seed Iowa State, Nigel Johnson made them right.
Despite a heart-breaking 91-85 loss to the Cyclones that cut the Wildcats' stay at the tournament short, there was a silver lining to be found in the form of the young point guard.
The freshman from Ashburn, Va., went into yesterday's game averaging just 3.8 points per game. He played limited minutes and was often showed inconsistency on the court.
However, things changed for Johnson in Sprint Center, and when the Wildcats' leading scorer, Marcus Foster, wound up in early foul trouble, it was Johnson who was called upon to play big minutes.
And what he did with those minutes was a thrill.
In his 22 minutes on the court, Johnson put away a career-high 17 points and dished out three assists.
He was in the zone.
"When I saw my first couple shots go down, it was a confidence booster," Johnson said after the game. "They've been telling me all week to be more aggressive, because I haven't been aggressive. So, I feel like today I developed and made an effort to be more aggressive and the ball was going in. Now I'm just going to try and keep this going."
For Foster, who finished the game with a team-high 21 points, watching Johnson have a career day made him look forward to the future of the young team.
"It was fun to watch Nigel play like that. Not many people know, but he's a very, very good scorer," explained Foster. "I feel he's definitely going to be able to change the game for us in the (NCAA) Tournament, and in the next season because he'll get points and assists as a point guard."
It wasn't only Johnson, though, who stepped up off the Wildcats' bench. The bench finished yesterday's game scoring a combined 41 points and was led by senior Shane Southwell, who finished the game with 19 points and seven rebounds.
Though a bitter way to lose - the game was tied with three minutes to go and K-State trailed by just two points in the final minute - Southwell and the entire Wildcat squad knows its depth on its bench, including Johnson, will be huge as it continues its season looking forward to the NCAA Tournament.
"(Nigel's play) was big. We pride ourselves on our bench play and 'Next Man Up,'" Southwell said. "So he really played well. He's a really talented player. We just need some glimpses of that every day or every game. I'm really proud of him, and we appreciate the performance he had today, but we just have to go out there and defend and get a couple more stops. Then we'd be even happier."
Moving forward, the Wildcats will put this game behind and focus now, solely, on improving and preparing for what lies ahead.
"Coming off the court, we were all sad, disappointed in ourselves, but coach came in and told us that we have to stay positive," Foster said. "We're fortunate enough to have a couple more games left because of the NCAA Tournament. We could make a run in the tournament, so we're disappointed, but right now we're just really anxious to see what we get."
Despite the loss, head coach Bruce Weber is confident in his team. While he knows there were mistakes in yesterday's loss that, had they not been made, would have kept K-State in the tournament a little longer, he also knows he's watched his team defeat some of the nation's toughest teams this season.
There's no doubt the Big 12 is the nation's best conference. It ranks No. 1 in the latest overall RPI and strength of schedule as three teams (No. 10 Kansas, No. 16 Iowa State, No. 17 Oklahoma) ranked in the top 25, while seven of the 10 teams ranked in the nation's top 47.
So now moving forward, K-State must leave yesterday's loss in the rear view mirror, move on and remember it has wins over some of the nation's top competition under its belt as it looks forward to another tough team next week.
"Every game (during Big 12 play) was tough," said Weber. "You're playing against the free-willing offenses of Iowa State and Oklahoma. You're playing against the size and discipline of Texas and Kansas, and then the toughness of West Virginia. We've had some good tests, now they've just got to keep their heads up. We've got to keep going. We were playing for probably a little bit of a better seed today, and we hope it doesn't hurt us too bad.
"I hope they understand that if we play well, we can beat anyone in the country. We've got to go show it next week."
For highlights from yesterday's game, click here.