The atmosphere inside Bramlage Coliseum bordered on the apocalyptic when Kansas State trailed Iowa State at halftime of an important Big 12 basketball game on Saturday.
Even the most optimistic of fans expected the Wildcats to lose at that point. Not only were they staring into an eight-point deficit, but they had recently seen their team lose five of their last seven games and fall out of contention in the conference championship race.
Many wondered if K-State’s hot start to the season was a fluke: Was it really the same team that scored 116 points in a game at Texas, once owned an 18-3 record, and climbed all the way to the number 3 in national polls?
But those worries began to fade in the second half as the K-State players regained their bravado and came from behind to beat the Cyclones 61-55. Iowa State was in double figures in the first half and had a 31-23 lead at halftime. The Wildcats No. 12 (20-7, 8-6 Big 12) looked doomed. Still, they found a way to step up their game and remind everyone what they were capable of during an impressive second half that suddenly makes their prospects look bright.
“It was a must-win win for us after two road losses,” said K-State point guard Markquis Nowell after scoring 20 points. “We didn’t want to lose at home in front of our fantastic fans. We also played with a sense of urgency and energy. We didn’t go too high when things were good, and we didn’t go too low when things were bad. We played consistently through all of this and came out victorious.”
The question is, how did K-State flip the switch at exactly the right time?
It started with some fiery talks at half time from Nowell, some of his team mates and manager Jerome Tang. Imagine any sports movie with inspiring moments in a locker room with players returning to action as energized as ever. This is what happened at halftime of Saturday’s match.
“It’s never good to be down at half-time, especially at home,” said K-State forward Ismael Massoud. “… In that first half, we had to take what we could and learn from it. We felt like we were playing good defense, but they had too many points on the field and were getting second chance opportunities.
“We thank Markquis. He challenged us, some of the big shots and stuff like that. He just said we need to do a better job of rebounding and doing our job. Everyone has to do their job and not worry about doing other people’s work. If everyone is focused on this team, it seems to me that the sky is the limit. So that’s just what we tried to do.
The difference was evident.
After posting 23 low points and making 7-of-23 shots in the first half, the Wildcats scored 38 points and made 11-of-25 shots in the second half. Nowell had the biggest conversion, scoring 18 of his points after the break.
K-State has also made life miserable for Cyclones No. 19 (17-9, 8-6 Big 12) whenever the Cyclones were on the attack. Iowa State hit just 7 of 32 shots in the second half and looked unlucky trying to score against the Wildcats.
You could see the change immediately, as the Wildcats started the second half on a 22-9 run and Nowell drained four 3-pointers.
“It was very important, because the first five minutes are important,” said Nowell. “I told my boys, ‘We can’t go out apathetic. We have to go out with energy.’ And that’s what we did.
Tang said he tried to keep his halftime speech simple.
“It was just that we had to rebound the ball,” Tang said. “They had more dots of paint than us by about 10. So we have to do some shots. If we turn them over, we can go out and run and we’ll look good. We knew it was a 40 minute game. No one in the Big 12 really throws a knockout punch unless you’re ready to play. We knew it was going to be a 40 minute game and a meat grinder. Our boys have shown their maturity and tenacity.”
They have also shown that they are still capable of playing at the high level they played earlier this season. It was a welcome and unexpected change from the way things looked at halftime.