MANHATTAN — The significance of the moment was not lost on Cartier Diarra, especially in a season where not much has gone right for the Kansas State Wildcats.
The Wildcats had just dismantled No. 12-ranked West Virginia 84-68 on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum, showed grit and determination when things got tight and ultimately beaten the Mountaineers at their own game.
"One, it's a top-25 team coming into our building, being known as one of the best defensive teams in the nation, and I feel like we showed them that we played probably just as good of defense or better, and we could score the ball as well," said Diarra, the Wildcats' junior guard, whose 26 points, 4 assists and 2 steals were key factors in the victory. "I think we shot over 50-something (percent) and they usually hold teams to 30-some as field goals, so that just showed the offensive part and how we executed the game plan.
"Just being ready, that's the biggest thing, and this game is definitely, I feel like, helped us get ready for Tuesday (at No. 6 Kansas)."
The Sunflower Showdown on Tuesday in Lawrence should help determine if the Wildcats, who still are just 8-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big 12, took a major step forward or simply caught lightning in a bottle.
K-State coach Bruce Weber would like to think it's the latter, and he had an inkling the Wildcats were due Saturday.
"I thought (Friday) was a good practice, especially defensively," Weber said. "We stopped all the scout team's stuff, which we haven't done every day. I didn't obviously think we would shoot 59 percent, 50 from three. (West Virginia's) defensive numbers are scary, to be honest, but I thought if we guarded the heck out of them, it would give us a chance, and I thought we really defended well."
Throw out an 86-41 blowout of Alabama State in December, and the Wildcats achieved season highs in both points and field goal percentage (59.2%), while also hitting 9 of 18 3-point attempts. West Virginia's field goal percentage defense of 35% led the Big 12 and the Mountaineers ranked second to only No. 2-ranked Baylor in scoring defense at 59.3 points allowed.
Defensively, K-State held West Virginia to 36.7% shooting on the way to a 42-25 halftime advantage, and 44.6% for the game. The Mountaineers shot 53.8% in the second period, but much of that came off six straight Wildcat turnovers, resulting in a 15-0 spurt.
West Virginia eventually cut the deficit to six, 60-54, with 7:48 to play, but instead of following a season-long trend and stumbling down the stretch, the Wildcats punched back with nine straight points of their own and cruised the rest of the way.
Weber went with a more veteran starting lineup against the Mountaineers, starting Levi Stockard at forward in place of freshman Montavious Murphy and opting for junior point guard David Sloan instead of rookie DaJuan Gordon to handle the WVU press. Regular starting guard Mike McGuirl missed his second straight game with a concussion.
Sloan, a junior college transfer whose spotty defense has limited his playing time, responded with nine points, five assists to just one turnover, and four steals. Gordon turned in a career game off the bench with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting and another four steals.
While K-State's turnover spree in the second half — six of the team's 16 in a two-minute stretch — allowed West Virginia to claw back into the game, it was the Wildcats who eventually came out ahead in that battle. The Mountaineers turned it over 18 times, resulting in 28 points.
Diarra, K-State's assist leader with nearly six a game, was asked what stood out most to him about his stat line, the points, assists — or his seven turnovers. He didn't hesitate.
"Definitely the turnovers," he said. "I definitely can't have that many. I never want to have more turnovers than I have assists. Those led to some points for them. We should have won by 30 or more, but they made their run because of those turnovers I made, so that's what I've got to learn for the next game."
Whether the Wildcats can build upon Saturday's performance remains to be seen, but for one day they looked like a team with much more to offer. That fact was not lost on Sloan or the rest of the team.
"It feels good," Sloan said. "It just shows that we can basically play with anybody in the league and we've just got to bring it every game."