SE: K-State MBB Can’t Overcome Heavy-Hitting Bearcats in First Round of NCAA Tournament

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — D.J. Johnson and Wesley Iwundu checked out of the game, hugging coaches and teammates one by one down the bench. Their careers were about to end in the form of a 75-61 loss to sixth-seeded Cincinnati on Friday, and the natural emotions were forming. 

Soon, K-State’s contingent of fans straight across from the Wildcat bench applauded each senior, whose efforts were vital in bringing the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of the seniors,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. “The last five weeks or so, Wes has been big-time for us. Can’t say enough about him, his improvement and the things he’s done. D.J., fighting through all what’s he’s gone through. I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s done to fight through injuries and surgeries and all that stuff.”

The Wildcats were unable to fight back from a slow start against the Bearcats, who hit their first eight shots of the game and rode a scorching shooting performance to the finish. Cincinnati finished converting 63 percent from the field, a season-high allowed by K-State. 

“Cincinnati brought their ‘A’ game and they played at a high level,” Weber said. “I thought we had to be a good defensive team tonight if we were going to have a chance because I know their defense is good. If we let them get going like they did, it was going to be a struggle for us.”

While K-State was nowhere near the foul trouble it faced in its First Four win against Wake Forest, the Wildcats were without Iwundu for a serious chunk of the first half. The 6-foot-7 Wildcat picked up his second foul at the 11:44 mark, which sent him to the bench with his team down six points. 

Without Iwundu on the floor, Cincinnati stretched its lead to 13 points, prompting Weber to bring his versatile senior back on the floor. Almost immediately, Iwundu was fouled on a shot and knocked down both free throws. Shortly after, however, he was assessed his third foul. 

“In a game like this, I want to be in the game. I could have helped the team out so much more in the first half when they went on that little run,” said Iwundu, who put up 19 points, three assists and four rebounds. “It is what it is. Cincinnati was the better team and came out with the win.”

Iwundu came out of halftime with a vengeance, hitting a pair of treys and making two free throws, all in about a two-minute span. 

“He was the one that gave us athleticism,” Weber said of Iwundu, the only player in K-State history to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals in a career. “He got the ball in the paint. He was making the plays and playing at a high level.”

About six minutes into the second half, K-State got consecutive stops on defense. Barry Brown followed with a transition layup and a 3-pointer, cutting K-State’s deficit to six points. 

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, in what was a microcosm of the night, their streak of defensive stops halted there. 

“Every time we made a run to put a little pressure on them, it seemed like they stepped up, made the play, or we missed a layup or maybe tried to go too fast and make a tough play,” Weber said. “They were good tonight. There is no doubt about that.”

Despite the season-ending loss, K-State can come away from the year with plenty of significant achievements. The Wildcats (21-14) reached at least 20 wins and the NCAA Tournament for the third time under Weber. With their 95-88 victory over Wake Forest, the Wildcats also secured the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2012. 

“I just wanted to get my team back to the tournament and put on for my university,” said Johnson, a fifth-year senior who’s working on his Master’s degree in community planning and design. 

“It meant a lot. I wanted to go out on a note like this, being in the NCAA Tournament for one last time. It’s a great accomplishment, after not making it the past two years, to get back here and even win a game,” Iwundu said. “I wish it could have been different, but I do feel like the future is bright. We have a lot of good players coming back next year, and with a coach like Coach Weber, the sky is the limit. I feel good about the situation going forward.” 

K-State will also lose senior Carlbe Ervin II, a community-college transfer, and the energy he brought off the bench, along with Austin Budke and Zach Winter. The Wildcats bring back more than 60 percent of their scoring from this season, including a pair of veteran guards in Brown and Kamau Stokes, two sophomores now with postseason experience.  

“I’m glad these guys got this opportunity. For D.J. to come back after hurting his foot three years ago, for Wes to stay the course, really help us and get better and better, and for Carlbe also willing us to get in,” Weber said. “For the young guys, it’s a great experience and that’s what I told them after the game. You got a taste of it. Now you have to want more.” 

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