No Dean? No problem. Put in Mike McGuirl.
Really. McGuirl, a freshman who missed the first 12 games with injury, and who had scored only thirteen points in the entire season before Friday night, fueled K-State (23-11) to a 69-59 victory over Creighton (21-12) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
To be fair, it wasn’t all the unexpected excellence of one guy. Playing as if they were determined to make risk of further injury to star teammate Dean Wade completely unnecessary, Kansas State played aggressive, athletic team basketball from the opening tip. They spread the scoring around and frustrated Creighton’s high-powered offense.
Defense, in fact, is the real story of the game. The Bluejays managed only 26 points in the first half, their lowest total of the season. Their 59-point total for the game tied their previous low mark of the year, in a 65-59 loss to Baylor back in November. They came in averaging 84 points per night.
Barry Brown deserves particular plaudits. He locked down Creighton’s leading scorer, Marcus Foster, who did not score until making a baseline lay-up with 10:30 left to play. The sometimes sensational shooting guard ended his career with five points on 2-11 shooting.
Make no mistake, though. McGuirl was a revelation, and a major 1-A in K-State’s formula for first round tournament success. Pressed into service because of Wade’s injury and Diarra’s foul trouble, the freshman guard scored 17 points on 6-10 shooting. He added four rebounds and an assist. Along with Brown’s team-leading 18 points and modest contributions from the rest of the squad, K-State scored enough to keep Creighton trailing from start to finish.
Kamau Stokes scored the game’s first seven points to stake the ‘Cats to a lead that never got smaller than three during the first half. Keyed by the defense and solid rebounding, K-State rolled early. When Makol Mawien pulled up and hit a three to make the score 10-2, it looked as if the squad might be invincible.
But Creighton is a seasoned club, and the Bluejays fought back. They narrowed the lead several times, even cutting it to two in the second half. Fortunately, they just never had quite enough to surpass K-State.
At one critical early juncture, after a Toby Hegner lay-up cut the margin to 20-16, Cartier Diarra heaved a deep, last-resort three-pointer to beat the shot clock. It swished straight down the well. On the following defensive possession, Diarra elevated to block a short jumper, leading to a fastbreak that Xavier Sneed finished with a thunderous dunk off a Kamau Stokes lob. Just like that, the lead was seven again, keyed by two star plays by the athletic redshirt freshman.
K-State was focused and together through nearly the entire first half, and they got contributions from everyone. Stokes and Diarra led the squad with seven points each at the break, followed by Brown’s six and McGuirl’s five, topped off by a three-pointer even deeper than Diarra’s just before the halftime buzzer.
One major first-half hiccup: Free throws. The Wildcats got to the line 8 times, but only made three attempts. Free throw shooting would remain a problem all night, and had the ‘Cats not played so well defensively, their 14-25 (56%) mark from the charity stripe might have cost them the game.
As they had all night, K-State answered every time Creighton made runs in the second half, as well. Coming out of the locker room, the Bluejays got buckets from Mitch Ballock and Khyri Thomas to pull within 37-35 before the first media timeout. Though the Wildcats suffered a nearly three-minute scoring drought, the defense held the line until shots started falling again, and K-State stretched the lead back to six, 41-35. Their biggest lead of the night came on a Barry Brown lay-up to make the score 64-48 with under 2:30 to play. The rest was just formalities.
K-State held Creighton to 33.8% shooting (23-68), and only 26.5% from deep (9-34). The Wildcats, meanwhile, shot 46% from the floor (23-50), including 47.4% (9-19) from beyond the arc. That’s good news for a team that had struggled down the stretch of the season from outside. It helps to knock down a couple from 28 feet.
Creighton was led by Mitch Ballock’s 16 points. Toby Hegner scored 14, and Davion Mintz had 10.
So, K-State is on to the round of 32 for the first time since 2012 and the first time in the Bruce Weber era. It took a gutty, aggressive team performance to get there. The players and the staff deserve universal congratulations. If fans doubted their chances without Wade, the team showed no signs that they doubted themselves.
Three in the Key
- More on the Defense. It would be hard to say enough about how well the Wildcats played team defense. Obviously, Brown did a stellar job guarding Marcus Foster. We know firsthand just how dynamic Foster is. Brown and his cohorts held him to an inefficient five points. His principal sidekick, Khyrie Thomas, scored only nine. One of Creighton’s favorite plays is a pick-and-lob. K-State got more steals on that play than the Bluejays did buckets. That’s good scouting. That’s good coaching. That’s good execution. And defense is the biggest reason the ‘Cats are moving on.
- Curtains for Marcus Foster. We wouldn’t normally devote much attention to an opposing player, but this is a special case. Foster was a tremendous player for K-State in his freshman year, before distractions and immaturity derailed his time in Manhattan. He is a much better player than he showed tonight, and from all accounts, a much better person than he was when he was dismissed from Bruce’s team. Answering questions about what went wrong his sophomore year at K-State had to get tiresome, but he answered the questions—again and again—with grace and class. His career ended in disappointment, but he has that in common with the majority of players to put on a jersey. It would have been tremendous to see him realize his full potential in the purple and white. But congratulations to him for getting his life back on track and realizing his full potential somewhere.
- Another reunion coming? K-State will play the winner of the 1 vs. 16 match-up between Virginia and University of Maryland Baltimore County. No 16-seed, has ever defeated a No. 1, of course. Former Wildcat Nigel Johnson, who left in the mass exodus that followed the 2014-2015 season, is a reserve guard for the Cavaliers, who averages 4.7 per game. The first reunion went perfectly. Do we dare to dream second-week dreams?