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Fort Hays State stuns Wildcats

Kellis Robinett
The Wichita Eagle (TNS)
Fort Hays State guard Alvin Thompson (0) drives to the basket past Kansas State center Davion Bradford (21) during Tuesday night's game at Bramlage Coliseum.

MANHATTAN — If this isn't the low point of Bruce Weber's tenure as Kansas State men's basketball coach, it's hard to identify what is.

The Wildcats suffered an embarrassing 81-68 loss to Fort Hays State on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum, and there was no sugar-coating the fact that they lost to a Division II team for the first time since 1945.

"This was very, very disappointing and sad for our program," Weber said. "I knew the season was not going to be easy. Obviously, I didn't think it was going to be this tough. We have had to go through COVID, injuries and all that stuff. But there is no way this should happen."

Indeed, it's difficult to put into words just how humiliating of a defeat this was for K-State. The Tigers were picked to finish seventh in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association this season and entered the game without a win on their record. They started the year with losses to Emporia State, Washburn and Nebraska-Kearney but that didn't stop them from wiping the floor with a Big 12 team on its home court.

K-State guard Mike McGuirl only needed two words to sum up the result.

"Tonight hurt," he said.

Everyone knew this was going to be a long season for the Wildcats, who are in rebuilding mode coming off a dreadful 2019-20 campaign in which they won 11 games and finished last in the Big 12 standings, but few envisioned them struggling to this degree.

It seems like the Wildcats' young roster, which features nine new scholarship players, still has miles to go before it can compete with most teams on their schedule. They are off to such a poor start that Weber, in his ninth season, publicly preached patience from fans, while also reminding them of his past successes, after the team's latest loss.

"I apologize," Weber said. "I am disappointed. No excuses, I am the boss and I have been here. I have done really good things, but right now this is not a special thing. I hope (the fans) stick with us. We have got a young group. I am very, very sure on Friday (against Milwaukee) that it is going to be different, and hopefully moving forward in the season."

Much improvement is needed before the Wildcats are ready to win any of their upcoming games.

On Tuesday, K-State (1-4) was no match for a team that it added to the schedule over the weekend with hopes of treating like an exhibition opponent. Weber intended to win comfortably and give some seldom-used players an opportunity to get on the court. Instead, forwards Kaosi Ezeagu and Montavious Murphy missed the game with injuries and Weber had no choice but to play starters as much as possible against Fort Hays (1-3) while they played catch up the entire way.

Seriously, the Wildcats trailed from start to finish.

Perhaps most astonishing of all: Fort Hays didn't even have its head coach on the bench. No. 2 assistant Todd Johnston was in charge for this game, enthusiastically clapping and pumping his fists after every big play.

"We have been scoring enough points to win games, but we haven't been getting stops and getting rebounds to win games in the MIAA," Johnston said. "I thought we showed that tonight. I told our guys at the end of this game that this should kick start our MIAA play and show us that we can do it. And show us what it takes to do it. I think that was big for the guys."

That enthusiasm helped the Tigers take control early and lead 35-29 at halftime. Then they really put their feet on the gas in the second half and surged ahead by as many as 21.

Every time the Wildcats tried to make a run, the Tigers had an answer. Senior forward Jared Vitzum led the Tigers with 16 points, but he was far from the only player K-State couldn't stop. Six different Fort Hays players reached double figures and the Tigers made 55% of their shots, including 10 three-pointers.

K-State has been awful on defense all season, but it was arguably at its worst in this game. Fort Hays players continually launched uncontested three-pointers and blew by defenders off the dribble for easy layups.

McGuirl led all scorers with 22 points, but the senior K-State guard needed much more help for K-State to avoid disaster.

Still, he took the blame.

"If you're not all in you don't need to be on our team right now," McGuirl said. "It's a great message, because there is too much BS right now. I can say that is on me, because as a leader I have allowed it. It's happening, it's going on and it can't anymore. So tomorrow we have to come in and everybody has to be all in. We have to improve and listen."

Weber concurred with his senior leader, saying that players have spent too much time talking and questioning instead of listening and following in recent practices. No one has handled adversity well.

The Wildcats were fed another spoonful of it by Fort Hays. In an odd twist, this game was classified as an exhibition for the Tigers, meaning they can't technically count the victory.

But the loss will forever appear in the K-State record books.

Fort Hays State's Gilbert Peters blocks out against Kansas State center Davion Bradford (21) and guard Nijel Pack (24) during Tuesday night's game at  Bramlage Coliseum.