Perhaps the last way Jeff Mittie expected K-State to secure a win Thursday night was via a rebound.
The Wildcats were battered in the first quarter against No. 23 Auburn. Not only did the Tigers grab a 21-13 lead on the scoreboard, but K-State trailed 14-3 in the rebounding category, a combination with which Mittie was less than pleased.
So when junior Shaelyn Martin pulled down Janiah McKay’s 3-point attempt to bring Auburn within a point in the final seconds, sealing K-State’s 71-66 win over the Tigers, poetic justice settled into Bramlage Coliseum.
As well as a raucous, booming crowd, of course.
“We all knew we had to get on the boards, and I think everybody on that possession had a body on somebody,” Martin said. “It gave me an opportunity to release and go get the ball. I think that was one thing we did a lot better, especially at the end of the game — making sure (Auburn) didn’t get a chance to get it.”
It was a staggering turnaround for K-State, both in the rebounding and defensive departments, though Mittie wasn’t complaining. He did scream a bit, though. Whatever it took for his team to recover on the glass and against Auburn’s swarming press defense.
“Yelled at them a little more,” Mittie said.
It worked, whatever the head coach did. The Wildcats ended with a 39-26 rebounding advantage, perhaps none more vital than the final two: Martin’s board, and the possession previous, when senior Breanna Lewis grabbed a miss from Brandy Montgomery, a 3 that would have given Auburn a two-point lead.
Lewis had to be careful, though. She drew her third foul near the end of the first half, and her fourth foul came with 8:15 to play.
But that’s where Mittie loosened his grip on the leash Thursday night. He said he kept his coaching to a minimum Thursday night, including when he sent Lewis, saddled with four fouls, back into the game with just over five minutes remaining.
“This was not a coach’s game tonight. This was a player’s game,” Mittie said. “We didn’t call any plays. There wasn’t a whole lot, other than saying ‘stay in your fundamentals.’ I’m so proud of our players for not needing us coaches very often.”
And maybe his players flourished because of it. Senior Kindred Wesemann totaled 16 points behind four triples, Lewis logged 13 points, and freshman Peyton Williams, who filled in when Lewis sat with foul trouble, added 11.
Nearly all the scoring K-State posted was in response to Auburn baskets. At first to come back from what seemed like an insurmountable lead, then to battle back for the lead when the teams traded buckets, then, in the fourth quarter, to hold the Tigers at arm’s length.
But K-State’s initial resurgence? Aside from raising his voice, the mantra Mittie has installed helped his team scale a steep hill early on.
“I think ‘next play’ is certainly one of the monikers we talk about,” he said. “You will hear our team talk about ‘next play’ an awful lot, and you’ll hear our team talk about poise a lot.”
It paid dividends when the Wildcats outscored Auburn 21-11 in the second quarter en route to a 34-32 halftime lead, but the drama continued to unfold almost immediately after the third stanza began.
The Tigers canned three straight treys to open the third frame, good for a 41-36 lead. The momentum K-State had piled up in the first half had vanished.
But Williams converted on a layup minutes later, and the Wildcats retook the lead, this time at 44-43. And so the basket-swapping began.
It favored the home team, though, and in no small part due to K-State’s backcourt depth. When foul trouble forced Lewis to watch from the bench, Williams was quick to make plays inside. As was Martin, who grabbed nine rebounds. As was freshman Eternati Willock.
The Wildcats’ depth flustered Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, who found no solace in seeing Lewis head to the bench — she knew K-State wasn’t losing much underneath.
“When she’s on the bench, they still came back in with big post players,” Williams-Flournoy said. “It’s not like (K-State) is coming back into the game with 5-11, 5-10 (players). Your subs are big. So it’s still tough.”
The visitors’ own foul issues made the burden heavier on Auburn: three Tigers fouled out, including Jazmine Jones and Jessica Jones, 6-2 forwards who were responsible for trying to disrupt the advantage around the basket K-State refused to cede.
Their attempts were in vain, at least in the second half, when K-State turned their struggles into unbeatable advantages over a ranked opponent. And with a 7-0 record to their names, the Wildcats may see their name in the next edition of the rankings — though it’s not at the front of any of their minds.
“I just want to play, and I just want to win,” Wesemann said. “Everybody wants wants to be a ranked team. Beating them is a pretty good way to become one.”
Whether or not it reaches the Top 25, K-State now turns its attention to a road matchup with Omaha on Sunday.