Jeff Mittie isn’t used to close games this year. Ones ending closely, at least.
His Kansas State team is now 9-0 on the season after a 62-49 win over UT-Arlington Wednesday night, but following the airtight first three quarters, it seemed the Wildcats and Mavericks were headed toward a theatrical finish — unlike K-State’s seven double-digit wins previously.
But the fourth quarter was the difference Wednesday in Manhattan.
K-State outscored UT-Arlington 22-9 in the fourth, after leading a narrow 45-40 affair after three complete. But the Wildcats leaned on senior Breanna Lewis’ 15 points and 11 rebounds, six points of which came in the fourth, securing K-State its 900th win in program history.
Lewis also carded four blocks, but senior guard Kindred Wesemann may have been disappointed to see Lewis’ blank expression after each swat.
“Kindred told me every time I block a shot, say ‘welcome to K-State,’” Lewis said with a hearty laugh, referencing K-State employees’ tagline for fans entering games. But she remained stoic.
The final score may suggest a fairly easy win for the Wildcats, especially given their huge final quarter. But that was far from the case.
The Mavericks’ full-court press was the difference all night: both when it worked and when it did not. When it did, the results were disastrous for K-State — the Wildcats finished with 26 turnovers, many of them at the hands of the swarming UT-Arlington defense.
When the press didn’t work, the results were twofold: the Mavericks didn’t have time to reestablish after missed shots, and K-State raced up the floor for easy baskets. That’s how senior Breanna Lewis scored a fair amount of her 15 points, at least.
She was guarded by 6-5 UT-Arlington center Rebekah VanDijk for most of the night, a rare evenly-sized matchup for the also 6-5 Lewis. But it mattered not.
“She had a bigger body, but I knew that I was quicker than her, so I just tried to be quick and score fast,” Lewis said.
That she did, especially in the fourth quarter, when she tallied six points en route to what ended in another double-digit win for K-State.
“Lew made some big moves when we needed her to, to extend that lead to 15, 16, 17,” Mittie said.
The Wildcats finished with a fourth-quarter flourish, but the first three frames were nothing of the kind. K-State’s lead was just 13-10 after one quarter, and just 26-21 at the intermission.
It was all because of UT-Arlington’s press. The Wildcats coughed up the ball 15 times in the first half alone, and nearly all occurred when K-State made errant passes, trapped in corners and along sidelines trying to work the ball up the court.
It wasn’t the first time K-State faced a full-court press this season: the Wildcats saw a similar defensive arrangement in their 71-66 win over Auburn last Thursday, but K-State responded far less efficiently on Wednesday.
This time, the Wildcats attempted lobs and passes both lethargic and careless in nature, and Mittie took notice.
“Against Auburn, you saw us play with a controlled aggression. And you saw us play with a confidence,” Mittie said. “I think we should give (UT-Arlington) credit for getting us sped up some, but it was a lot of self-inflicted problems for us. We didn’t have very good spacing; (we got) sidelined way too much against the traps.”
That was the problem for K-State nearly all night. But the good news for the Wildcats was that the Mavericks did not take any better care of the ball, turning it over 27 times of their own. K-State never pressed, so UT-Arlington’s turnovers were often due to their own mistakes.
“I thought they got inside at times, but they unsure of what to do against our size,” Mittie said. “You saw them try to skip it over our size a lot, and it ended up out of bounds on those kinds of skips. So I thought our defense was OK. I don’t think it was great tonight, but I think it was OK.”
Sophomore guard Kayla Goth posted 12 points in the win, and senior guard Kindred Wesemann added 10.
K-State is now faced with Goliath on Sunday: top-ranked UConn. The Huskies will arrive in Manhattan on an 83-game win streak, and they have lost just once in the last three seasons.
The K-State-UConn game, set for 1 p.m. Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum, sold out well before the week of, and for good reason.
“That atmosphere is going to be a special atmosphere. Not just for here, it’s going to be a special atmosphere across the country,” Mittie said. “I want our players to embrace that; I want our players to enjoy that, soak it in and play their tail off.”