During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, then “Voice of the Wildcats” broadcaster Mitch Holthus punctuated K-State wins with his trademark “big, big, big, big, big Wildcat victory.” How many “bigs” would he have appended to K-State’s 62-54 win over TCU in Fort Worth today?
No, it was not a takedown of KU or an upset of a top-ranked team. It wasn’t a defeat over Kentucky to advance to the Elite 8. It wasn’t a dominating win over OU to seal a share of a league title. The Wildcats beat a similarly young and inconsistent TCU team, and they had to grind all the way to the wire to do it. But to this team that has struggled so mightily, has suffered through a 13-game losing streak, and has carried the burden of hearing fans call for their coach’s job, the magnitude of getting on the right side of the ledger for the first time since late December cannot be overstated.
Though the game was close throughout, TCU (11-9, 4-7 Big 12) led the Wildcats (6-18, 2-13) by 5 points on three different occasions. The last of those came with 5:01 to play, when Mike Miles completed a three-point play at the free throw line to push the score to 51-46 and awaken the nagging whispers of doubt. But K-State was having none of that today. Ignited by a nice assist from Pack to Ezeagu for a lay-up, the Cats ran off 16-3 run over the last 4:49 to blow past the Frogs and win in style.
After Ezeagu’s bucket, Pack found the range from deep to knot the score at 51. Mike McGuirl snagged a long rebound of a missed three by Chuck O’Bannon and tossed it ahead to Selton Miguel, who used the rim to shield a blocker on his layup to put K-State ahead 53-51. After another Frog miss and another McGuirl rebound, Mike found Miguel on the wing for an open three-pointer. Suddenly, the Cats had a 5-point lead with 2:34 remaining.
Mike Miles would draw a foul and knock down two free throws to break up K-State’s 10-0 run. But Pack back-footed his defender and hit a smooth pull-up jumper from the elbow, and after R.J. Nembhard made only 1 of 2 free throws to get the Horned Frogs back within 4, McGuirl and Miguel each converted both ends of 1-and-1 opportunities to extend the lead to 8—the largest margin either team held all day. That was how the game—and the 13-game losing streak of the Wildcats—ended.
Though the closing kick gets the mention, a sequence moments earlier might have actually figured heavily in the outcome by reversing momentum. With about 7:30 to play and TCU leading by two, Selton Miguel stole the ball and tossed it ahead to DaJuan Gordon, who gathered himself for a layup. TCU’s PJ Fuller flew in and prevented Gordon from getting the shot away. When Gordon hit the deck, Fuller loomed over him and stared, drawing an immediate technical foul. A typical basketball scrum consisting mostly of jawing and shoving ensued. Because we have to be “fair,” the crew assessed a “T” to McGuirl (who appeared to be trying to get to DaJuan and help him up, mainly), as well.
Gordon was fouled on the attempt and made both free throws. Pack made the two technical foul shots. That pushed the score from 44-42 TCU to 46-44 K-State, giving the Cats their first lead of the second half at the 7:20 mark. R.J. Nembhard made both technical shots at the other end to even the score. As previously noted, the Frogs would rebuild a 5-point lead again before K-State’s decisive run. Still, you can’t help wondering whether the faux-tough-guy exchange lit a fuse for the young Wildcats.
Mike McGuirl had his best game in some time. Yes, he did shoot a couple of three-pointers that touched hardly any part of the goal. He also committed four turnovers. But he scored 16 points, led the team with 9 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists. Pack scored 12, but TCU hounded him into 4-15 shooting, including 2-6 from deep. One of those long connections beat the shot clock when he was standing on the “U” in the center court logo. It was pure the whole way. Pack matched McGuirl with 5 assists. Davion Bradford rounded out the double-figure scoring for the Cats, with 10.
Selton Miguel, who had been held scoreless in consecutive games, put up 9 points today, along with 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. The offense was needed, but it probably was not his biggest contribution to the victory. (More on that, below.)
Nembhard scored 14 to lead TCU, followed by freshman Mike Miles, who had 13. 7-foot monster Kevin Samuel was a force early, but the Frogs only found him six shots, somehow, and he wound up with 9 points.
K-State held TCU to 31.9 percent shooting (15-47), including 22.2 percent (4-18) from outside the arc. K-State, meanwhile, shot 23-57 (40.4%) overall and 5-14 (35.7%) from three. The shooting advantage from the field was just enough to overcome a nine-point difference at the free throw line, as TCU went 20-23, and the Cats were 11-15, with all four misses coming from Ezeagu.
The Cats only committed 9 turnovers on the day, while forcing TCU into 12.
Wins have been elusive and far too few. This one, in a season that was all about experience and learning how to win, in a game that looked as if it might be slipping away late as the Cats tried to stave off the negative vibes of a new record for futility, was a character check. The team did not luck into it or have it handed to them; they went and got it. It was at least five “bigs,” in my book. At least.
Three in the Key
- No more talk of (negative) streaks. This team had already set the mark for consecutive single-season losses. By winning today, they avoided the all-time losing streak, which was 14 losses extended between two seasons in 1922 and 1923. We need never mention that again, thank goodness.
- Not to be overlooked in this game, despite the euphoria of just finding a way to have more points than the opposition at the end, is the defensive effort. The Cats have turned up the defensive intensity of late, especially on the perimeter, and it has paid dividends. They had allowed Oklahoma State only 66 points and Kansas only 59 before locking down TCU to 54 today, including only three points—all on free throws—in the last five minutes of play. On a day in which Pack shot poorly, and on a team that has been prone to prolonged offensive droughts, defense kept game in reach. Of special note, Selton Miguel drew the assignment on Nembhard, who scored 21 in the first meeting between the teams, much of the day. Though Nembhard scored 14, he was only 3-11 from the field. A combination of Pack and McGuirl hounded talented point guard Mike Miles into a 3-13, 0-4 shooting day. If you are looking for the biggest factor in the outcome, look to the defensive end of the floor.
- Whew! What a relief. We all had this circled as the best remaining chance to pick up a “W,” and it looked as if we might miss the chance. But the team delivered. If a win can be this cathartic for fans, what must it feel like to the guys on the team? They have never mailed it in, even during the dark times. It’s really nice to see them rewarded for their hard work and their faith in each other.
Tuesday, February 23 vs. No. 9 OU, at 8:00 CST.