The Kansas State Wildcats (10-2) survived a furious rally by George Mason (6-7) to secure a 59-58 win in their last non-conference tuneup before league play begins against Texas January 2.
The end-of-game drama was unnecessary, and for K-State, it was mostly self-inflicted.
Bruce Weber’s team looked ready for league play in the last nine minutes of the first half, closing the period on a 20-2 run to open a 36-16 lead at the break. Defense on Otis Livingston, III was a key. The senior guard had scored 30 in George Mason’s previous game against Navy, and had scored at least 18 in five of the Patriots' last six contests. Barry Brown hounded him to a scoreless first half, on 0-3 shooting. The Patriots as a team were only 7-27 (25.9%) shooting in the half, as the Wildcats as a team turned in an excellent defensive performance.
Unfortunately—nearly catastrophically—the Wildcats could not sustain the excellence after the break. K-State equaled its largest lead of the game, 44-23, on a Barry Brown lay-up with 15:07 to play. But gradual slippage (if you can call a 12-2 run “gradual”) got the Patriots within 11, 46-35 with 10:15 remaining.
After the teams traded 3’s to make it 49-38, Livingston hit his first shot of the night on a smooth cross-over and step-back. He hit a three from the right corner on the next trip to narrow the margin to 49-43, capping a 20-5 George Mason run.
Kamau Stokes answered with two clutch threes of his own for K-State, stretching the margin back to 12, 55-43, and forcing the Patriots to use a time-out with 5:27 to play.
After the Patriots’ Jarred Reuter hit a jumper to get the deficit back to 10, and Justin Kier made 1-of-2 free throws, the Wildcats’ sloppiness with the basketball gave George Mason a real chance to steal the game. A Stokes turnover led to a run-out lay-up and a foul, and suddenly a game that K-State had controlled by 21 a few minutes earlier was a 5-point contest, 56-51, with just over two minutes to play. Another turnover and bucket made it 56-53, and the already nervous crowd at Bramlage Coliseum went silent.
Stokes atoned with a big 3-point bucket—his 5th on a 5-7 outside shooting night—to pull the margin back to 6, but Reuter scored through contact and made the free throw. A K-State turnover on the next possession led to another easy bucket, and George Mason trailed by only 1, 59-58. with less than a minute to play.
K-State ran clock and got an open three-point look for Cartier Diarra. The shot spun out, setting up drama with 17 seconds remaining. The defense forced a difficult attempt, and Barry Brown corralled the long rebound. That should have have ended the game, but as he tried to dribble out of pressure and into the clear, Brown was whistled for a double-dribble, awarding George Mason possession near half-court with 1.2 seconds left. After both teams used a time-out, Stokes tipped the inbound pass near the top of the circle, and the clock ran out to save K-State from the upset.
What we Learned
K-State is 10-2, but does anybody have a read on how good the team is? They played great basketball against Vanderbilt in Sprint Center before Christmas and played that way for stretches of the first half against George Mason, as well. Today, the Wildcats did not show the kind of poise you would expect from such an experienced roster and nearly blew a giant lead on their home floor.
To win—especially without the services of Dean Wade—this team must 1) defend aggressively and consistently; 2) rebound; and 3) take care of the ball. The squad is not likely to be an efficient offensive unit for long stretches, and though it looked tremendous at times in the game, things really began to fall apart when the guards turned the ball over and the defense lost track of shooters. They absolutely must clean up these mistakes to compete against the Big 12.
K-State won the rebounding battle 39-31, helping to offset a 10-5 deficit in turnovers. The Patriots outscored the Wildcats 15-7 off turnovers, and it nearly cost the Wildcats the game.
George Mason’s Livingston hit consecutive shots at a big time in the game for his only 5 points. He was 2-6 shooting and had two turnovers against only two assists. If not for the stifling defense played on him, mostly by Brown, we would be talking about a disappointing loss.
Stokes led the Wildcats with 20 points. Xavier Sneed scored 13 (all in the first half) and pulled down 9 rebounds. His 0-4 free throw shooting performance contributed to K-State’s overall 6-13 night at the line. Barry Brown had 12 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists. As a team, K-State had 15 assists on its 22 field goals, while George Mason had only 9 on its 23 makes, underscoring the importance of team offense to the Wildcat attack.
Levi Stockard came off the bench to contribute six points and to hustle after a couple of loose balls. He also knocked down an uncharacteristic 2-of-3 free throw attempts. In a one-point outcome, every one of those plays wound up being crucial to the victory.
First off, deep breath. The Cats survived. Next, they host the Texas Longhorns to open conference play on January 2 at 8:00. Texas comes to Manhattan at 8-4, with a win against then-No. 7 North Carolina on its resume.