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Most prognosticators (ahem, guilty party here) predicted a low-scoring slugfest between Kansas State and TCU to open the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City, likely with the winner decided in the closing minutes of the game. Behind the hot shooting of Nijel Pack and another stellar team defensive effort, no such drama unfolded, as K-State (9-19, 4-14 Big 12) pulled away from TCU (12-14, 5-11) for an easy 71-50 victory.
The Wildcats opened the game intent on getting the ball to the rim and locking down defensively. After both teams opened with with empty possessions, Selton Miguel drove in for a layup to start the scoring. Though TCU answered with a three-pointer, its lead would be brief. K-State would go on a 13-2 run over the next six minutes to take a 15-5 lead with 11:25 to play in the first half. As they have been prone to do all season, though, the Cats hit an offensive air pocket that allowed the Horned Frogs to run off a 16-4 splurge and take the lead back at 23-19 with 2:54 to play in the half.
At that point, both Davion Bradford and DaJuan Gordon were on the K-State bench with two fouls, and it felt as if K-State just needed to survive until the break and regroup with its best five back on the floor.
Mike McGuirl and Nijel Pack had other ideas.
McGuirl cut the lead to two with a jumper, then found Rudi Williams for a layup to even the score. With 59 seconds left, Pack drained a three-pointer. Then, he hit another off a drive-and-dish from McGuirl with six seconds remaining. Rather than merely holding on, the Cats went to the locker room with a 29-23 lead.
And they never let up.
McGuirl hit a three-pointer on the first possession out of the break, then converted an and-one opportunity to give K-State a 16-point lead less than a minute into the second half. A four-minute dry spell followed, and TCU got back to within 8, before McGuirl tossed a nice pass to Bradford for a dunk that made the score 40-30 Cats. The Horned Frogs would get within 8 one more time, but outside shots from McGuirl and two more from Pack would keep the margin at double-digits for the last 13:52 of the game.
K-State shot an uncharacteristically good 28-58 (48.3%) from the floor, including 7-21 from outside. But their defense was the one consistent factor in the contest, as they held TCU to 20-54 (37%) shooting, including 4-19 (21.2% from deep). The Cats also forced 21 turnovers and just did not allow the Frogs to get shots they wanted to take.
Pack, who was not included on the coaches’ freshman all-conference team, put in a stellar performance. He led all scorers with 23 points, and he did it while taking only 8 shots from the field. The smooth guard made 6 of those 8 attempts, including 5-of-6 from three-point range. He capped the performance by hitting 6-of-7 free throws. He also had six rebounds, five assists and two steals. Given all that, we’ll overlook the team-high three turnovers.
McGuirl was the only other Wildcat in double figures, with 17. He also had five assists, three steals, no turnovers, and one of the prettiest blocked shots you will ever see. Kaosi Ezeagu gave valuable minutes off the bench and led the team with 8 rebounds.
R.J. Nembhard was the only Horned Frog to reach double figures. He scored 11, on 5-13 marksmanship.
Three (plus one) in the Key
- This was K-State’s most complete game since...? It’s a debatable topic. I’m going to choose the final game of the 2019 regular season, when Bruce Weber’s previous best recruiting class, led by Barry Brown Jr., Dean Wade, and Kamau Stokes systematically dispatched Oklahoma 68-53 to secure a share of the 2018-19 Big 12 title. Feel free to argue, though. You need a long memory to find a performance as good both offensively and defensively as tonight’s was.
- Snub Nijel, will you? We can only guess if his exclusion from the all-freshman squad played any role in his performance tonight. But he was easily the player of the game, scoring 23 points, absurdly, while taking only eight—yes, 8!—shots. That’s insane. TCU super-frosh Mike Miles, who is an excellent player and was included on the all-Big 12 freshman team, scored 9 points on 3-12, 1-6 shooting and committed 4 turnovers against a single assist. Time will tell which of them will be the better player overall. But tonight, it was Nijel. No doubt about it.T
- The prize for this stellar performance? A matchup with No. 2 Baylor. The Bears completely annihilated K-State in their first two meetings, including a 48-point home loss that put the Cats on the wrong side of school history. Baylor later endured a season interruption due to COVID-19 and has not looked quite as dominant since. Meanwhile, K-State started playing much better team defense and has now won 4 of 5. Beating Baylor would be a tall order. But March is for basketball dreamers, right?
- Bonus point: Pack and McGuirl will steal the headlines because scoring always gets the attention. But tomorrow, pay close attention to the defense. The perimeter players are doing an excellent job of passing off cutters and closing on shooters. DaJuan Gordon and Selton Miguel, in particular, have really committed themselves to making opposing scorers uncomfortable with the ball. For basketball nerds, it’s fun to watch. If Baylor makes the mistake of thinking these are the same passive, sagging defenders they hung a hundred on twice in January, and if Nijel and Mike can keep hitting shots at this clip and find Bradford for the easy ones, and if—No. Let’s just watch and see, and appreciate the opportunity to play another game to gauge just how much improvement this squad has actually found down the stretch of the season.