FORT MYERS, Fla. — There are plenty of reasons why Kansas State lost for the first time this season, 63-59, to Pittsburgh on Monday in the opening game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off, but it's easy to blame abysmal free throw shooting above everything else.
Had the Wildcats made even half of their attempts, they would probably be playing for a tournament championship later this week rather than third place.
That's how bad they were from the charity stripe, where they made three of 13 shots without a defender in their face.
Those miscues were most evident in the final minute when K-State had an opportunity to take control with Levi Stockard stepping up to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 24 seconds remaining and K-State leading 58-57. Stockard missed the free throw and Xavier Johnson hit a driving layup on the other end that gave Pitt a lead it never relinquished.
"We made mistakes," K-State guard Cartier Diarra said. "I missed too many free throws. It's unnecessary and it won't happen ever, every again. I missed some bunnies. That's what it came down to. Three from 13 from the free-throw line is terrible. We have to work on that."
Funny thing is, K-State spent a lot of time working on shooting leading up to this game. Coach Bruce Weber asked players to practice one-handed shots and to work with weighted balls. Those efforts helped at the three-point line, where the Wildcats made 10 of 20 shots (by far their best showing of the year). But they weren't evident on free throws.
Still, they had an opportunity to win in the final moments. Diarra tried to respond to Pitt's go-ahead basket with a game-changing basket on the ensuing possession, but he was called for charging on his way to the hoop. The Panthers made a pair of free throws to move ahead 61-58 and then fouled Diarra to send him to the free-throw line with 1.5 seconds remaining.
It was a smart move. K-State had only made two of 12 free throws at that point. Giving K-State an attempt to tie the game from beyond the arc would have been coaching insanity. Diarra made his first free throw and intentionally missed his second. Pitt secured the rebound and won the game.
"We have got to be a little more poised and disciplined," Weber said. "We have got old guys, new guys all playing different roles. All we can do is just grow and learn. It's a long season. There are a lot of games left. We have to get a little bit better."
K-State (4-1) will play Bradley for third place at 5 p.m. Wednesday. It probably feels like it let this one get away against Pitt (5-2).
Diarra led the Wildcats with 13 points, but he needed 14 shots to score them. DaJuan Gordon was next with 12 points. Senior Xavier Sneed had a disappointing night, scoring eight points on 13 shots.
Ryan Murphy and Eric Hamilton led Pitt with 13 points apiece.
Weber tipped his cap to Pitt for making some difficult shots. The Panthers only had two assists all night. They made their living at the free-throw line (18 of 21) and inside (21 of 31).
"Toughness," Panthers coach Jeff Capel said. "That's how we won that game."
You could tell this was going to be a different game from the start. The first half went differently than usual for K-State.
Instead of starting slow and struggling to score the way they had during the first four games of the season, the Wildcats came out firing.
They looked like a new team and raced to a 9-0 lead before Capel made any type of adjustment on the Panthers bench. K-State players celebrated with every basket.
Starting Antonio Gordon for the first time also paid dividends for the Wildcats.
The freshman forward filled in for an injured Montavious Murphy and didn't back down from the moment by scoring seven of the game's first nine points. He opened the scoring with a corner three and then went inside for two buckets.
Weber had previously turned to Stockard when Murphy wasn't available, because he has more experience playing at this level, but Weber shook things up for this game.
Fellow freshman DaJuan Gordon also had a big start and finished the first half with a team-high 12 points on just six shots. He made a pair of three-pointers and also attacked the basket for a nifty up-and-under layup that helped K-State take a 27-17 lead.
The Wildcats needed their freshmen to step up with senior Sneed going scoreless on five shots during the first half.
All things considered, K-State fans had to love a double-digit lead under those circumstances. But foul trouble, Sneed's struggles and a zone defense from Pittsburgh eventually caught up on them.
The Wildcats only led 30-28 at halftime and had to battle from there.
"It's always a learning lesson," Sneed said. "We have got another tough game coming up in two days, so it's another chance to show what we got and prove to everybody what we have left to offer. We can't hang our heads on this one. We have to be ready to go."