The Kansas State Wildcats (7-4) finallly put in an effort in the first half we've been looking for all season, stretched the lead out over the first 8 minutes of the second half, then coasted in on fumes the rest of the way to take care of the Texas A&M Aggies. Technically a home game for the Cats (and decidedly so, given the makeup of the crowd), the game was played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, as an installment in The Wildcat Classic.
Texas A&M (7-3), to this point in the season, is in the same realm of Pittsburgh and Purdue. It's a solid win, but nothing to hang our hat on. We still need to go through the rest of the non-conference without a loss: against a Texas Southern team that just went into East Lansing and took down Michigan State yesterday, and a Georgia squad that is currently the best non-conference team we'll play outside of Arizona.
Continuing an incredible stretch of play over several games, Nino Williams was a critical factor in the team getting off to a great start.
The Wildcats came out of the gate inspired - finally - and battled back and forth with the Aggies. Nino came up with 9 points in the first 8 minutes, and the Cats led by 10 at the under-12 timeout in the first half. K-State moved the ball relatively well throughout the half, and defensively, rotations were occurring on time, and second rotations were effectively covering open shooters. A&M's Danuel House found a couple of openings and had 10 in the first half on 3-3 shooting, but K-State took a 39-32 lead into the locker room.
A&M and K-State bounced back and forth for the first couple minutes of the second half, but the Cats continued what got them the lead in the first half - finding good shots and solid help defense. By the under-12 timeout in the second half, we'd doubled the spread to 50-36, and slipped a bit to a 56-46 gap at the under-8.
Then, the dunk.
Wesley Iwundu grabbed a defenive rebound, spun around, brought the ball up the court himself ahead of the retreating Aggies, creating a 4-on-3 situation in the halfcourt. No one rotated over to stop the ball, and Iwundu sliced through the paint, rising up for a thunderous tomahawk that got nearly all 14,884 in attendance on their feet. The next play involved an A&M turnover and a outlet pass that was over Iwundu's head, which he gathered right at the baseline and, with a no-look flip behind his head, hit a trailing Nino Williams for another easy bucket and a Aggie timeout.
Happy birthday, Wes.
From that point forward, though, A&M started running a few different offensive sets that got us off-balance, we got a little careless in general with the ball, and the Aggies made this closer than it needed to be. Thomas Gipson played like an absolute hoss today - first time since Maui we've seen him play the entire game with his attitude squared up. Marcus Foster also played well, taking what the defense gave him and making the right plays for the team, and playing arguably the best on-ball defense we've seen from him this season.
Kansas State shot eighty-two-point-four percent from the floor in the first half. 14-17 from the floor. That comprises the third-best shooting performance in a half in school history, and the best since 1994. We also connected for 9 of 11 at the charity stripe in the first half.
Player Of The Game: Thomas Gipson
With all due respect to Nino pacing the team with 17 points, Foster playing very solidly with 10 points and 4 assists, and Wes having a breakout game for this season, Big Gip gets the nod. Gipson finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and a blocked shot in 32 minutes of court time. Gip was also solid in the second half when everyone else's free throws started leaving them; he calmly stepped up and nailed a couple, and finished 6-6 from the stripe for the game.
Other Player Notes
Collectively, K-State had four double-digit scorers on the night, with Nino (17), Gip (14), Foster (10), and Iwundu (10). Jevon Thomas and Justin Edwards both chipped in 8 each.
Jevon Thomas played a team-high 35 minutes, and finished with 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists to 2 turnovers.
A&M's Alex Caruso had a solid game, finishing with 10 points, 6 boards, 6 assists, and 3 steals.
1. In general, that was a much better K-State team than we've seen over the previous five games.
Defensively, we were notedly improved. Not perfect, but much better. Defensive rotations were on time and consistent. On-ball defense was quicker laterally. It was apparent that we were prepared for A&M's primary offensive gameplan. When they moved to a set using a bunch of high backscreens, though, they started getting some easy buckets right at the rim in the second half. We need to see better adjustment made by the team. We also need to see better fundamental rebounding on the defensive glass. We're not big enough to out-athlete other teams on the glass; we need to find people and put butts on them, instead of standing there and jumping up for the ball.
Offensively, we executed much better. One of the reasons we shot so well for not only the first half, but the entire game (finished at 61.5%) is that we played within ourselves, ran plays, and found the open man. Pretty simple, actually. When we didn't play within the context of the offense, got over extended or made bad passes? Turnovers. Offense in the second half was basically a made bucket, a trip to the line, or a turnover. The problem with those turnovers is many are live-ball turnovers. Steals. A&M picked up 5 steals on us - nearly half our total turnovers (12).
Again, these comments are in general. Can we find individual instances where we looked sloppy and disinterested? Sure. But by and large, given what's trotted out on the floor the past five games...this was a significant improvement.
2. Finally made the plays needed to win.
If you look solely at the numbers, and don't pay attention to the score, you wouldn't think we won. We were outrebounded (25-24), had fewer points in the paint (40-34), had fewer points off turnovers (14-12), had fewer second chance points (9-4), and had fewer fastbreak points (9-6). How did we pull it off? We made plays when we needed to. This thought doesn't just apply to the last couple minutes - it applies early in the game, as well. When we needed a play, we came up with one, whether it was a timely bucket, or a defensive stop.
3. Hit my Three Keys to the Game in the Preview.
Defensive rotation? For the most part, yep. It got a little lax late, but early and often was the reason we were able to build the lead we did.
Value the basketball? Pretty much. Before you crucify me for saying this...yes, we turned the ball over. Go read the preview. I thought we needed to keep turnovers to 12 or less to have a chance of winning. Where'd we land? 12, which put us right on national average of 20.0%.
Energy? Guys played hard from the opening tip. They let up in the second half when they thought the game was put away to a certain extent, but that was the best first half effort we've seen all season.
BONUS THOUGHT! MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Was that the performance Wesley Iwundu needs to break out of the shell he's been in all year? He has certainly been in a funk, and his 10 points, dunk, and all-around decent play was a great thing to see. We need Wes to be solid like that every game to be successful in Big 12 play.
The guys are off for a week for Chirstmas - and you should be too! #EMAW hosts Texas Southern (2-8) - who just picked up a big road win against Michigan State - Sunday, December 28 in Bramlage Coliseum.