The Wildcats’ Marcus Foster started the wild finish by draining a 3-pointer that narrowed the gap to 60-53 with 57 seconds left. Kevin Punter made one of two foul shots for Tennessee but Jevon Thomas hit a layup for K-State, trimming the lead to 61-55 with 37 seconds left.
Instead of milking the clock and forcing K-State to foul, Armani Moore tried an ultra-difficult pass that resulted in a turnover by the Vols and a near explosion by their coach.
“When Armani threw that no-look pass out of bounds I had a flash that I was going to go to jail (for his language) for a second,” Donnie Tyndall quipped after the game.
Moore’s miscue proved incredibly costly. KSU’s Foster hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left, whittling the deficit to 61-58. By this time many fans had stopped their exodus from the arena and turned to again face the playing floor. They probably breathed a collective sigh of relief when two free throws by Punter and two more by Josh Richardson bumped the Vol lead to 65-58 with just 17 seconds remaining. Game over, right? Wrong.
Foster hit a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left, cutting the lead to 65-61. When Derek Reese missed both ends of a two-shot foul for Tennessee, Foster quickly drained his fourth 3 of the final minute, trimming the deficit to 65-64. The horn sounded at this point but the game still was not finished. A review of the replay monitor prompted the officials to put two/tenths of a second back on the clock, forcing the Vols to inbound the ball one more time.
Punter broke free to collect the inbounds pass, and the horn sounded again, finally ending a closing minute that saw 19 points scored, a 10-point lead shrink to one point and a few thousand Big Orange fans suffer heart palpitations. Richardson could relate. Asked how he would describe the action-packed final minute of the 65-64 thriller, the Vol senior offered a one-word reply:
Incredibly, Kansas State scored almost as many points in the final minute (14) as it did the entire first half (17). Foster scored 12 of the final 14, hitting his last four 3-point tries after making just three of the previous 10.
“I was screaming ‘Everybody know where Foster’s at,” Richardson recalled of Kansas State’s final possession, “but I guess we just didn’t.”
Richardson scored 17 to lead Tennessee, which improves to 3-3. Foster finished with a game-high 23 points – 11 coming in the first 39 minutes, 12 coming in the final minute – to lead Kansas State, now 4-4. Tyndall thinks shooters relax when they’re launching desperation 3-pointers in this kind of late-game or late-clock situations.
“We call those shots ‘free balls,’” the coach said. “It’s like the end of the shot-clock shot – and they make about eight out of 10 of those – because the clock’s winding down and there’s no pressure on the shot. It’s very similar at the end of the game. It’s not going to kill you if you miss it because you’re down anyway.”
Despite allowing 14 points in the final minute, Tennessee won this game with defense. The Vols recorded 12 steals, forced 22 turnovers and blocked nine shots. The 6-foot-5 Moore rejected three shots in the opening four minutes, setting a tone and energy level for his teammates to follow.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking to set a tone,” he said, “but I’m always looking to be competitive. That’s what came, and that’s what I went and did.”
Energized by Moore’s ultra-aggressive start, Tennessee limited the Wildcats to 25 percent shooting (5 of 20) in the first half. The Vols weren’t much better, shooting just 35.7 percent (10 of 28) during that stretch, but their defensive intensity produced a 25-17 intermission lead and a standing ovation from much of the crowd as they headed to the break. Tennessee’s players heard the applause and appreciated it.
“Yeah, I did,” Richardson said. “I saw Coach Tyndall cheering, too, and freaking out. Holding a team to 17 points in a half is great, but they scored way too much the second half.”
Moore heard the crowd, too, and was equally grateful that they appreciate quality defensive play.
“It means a lot, man,” he said. “It’s always good to see our fans cheering for us.”
The unsung hero of Saturday’s win was Punter. Scoreless through 36 minutes, he hit a clutch 16-footer that bumped the lead to 57-45 with 3:42 remaining. When K-State closed to 57-50 he hit another mid-range jumper, widening the gap to 59-50 with 1:20 remaining. He also made three of four free throws in the final minute, scoring all seven of his points in the last four minutes. That took a lot of pressure off of Richardson, the team’s acknowledged “go-to” guy.
“It was good to be able to rely on my teammates to hit big shots today,” Richardson said. “A lot of different guys stepped up.”
No one stepped up more than Punter, who was 0 for 5 from the field before hitting those two jumpers in the closing minutes.
“Kevin is a guy that certainly isn’t afraid to take or make the big shot,” Tyndall said. “A couple of those shots were pretty tough 15-footers off the back of the press, which may be un-ideal, but he’s a kid that wants to take those shots. He has that mentality.
“He’s taken and made a lot of shots in his career. In junior college that was his role, and I don’t think he’s hiding from that at this level at all.”