The 13th-ranked Wildcats last won a regular season league title in 1977, but thanks to unprecedented success under first-year coach Bruce Weber and an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak by rival Kansas, Kansas State is tied with the sixth-ranked Jayhawks for first place in the Big 12.
Monday night’s 75-55 victory over Texas Tech kept the Wildcats’ hopes alive.
Now Kansas State has to keep its foot on the gas pedal.
”March is here,” Weber said. ”Next game is in March, and you want to be playing your best basketball. I hope they stay humble and they stay hungry. We’ve got to keep improving because in a couple weeks from now, you lose, it’s over.”
Thomas Gipson scored 20 points, Angel Rodriguez added 16, and the Wildcats (23-5, 12-3 Big 12) got their 12th conference win for the first time in 40 years.
Dusty Hannahs scored 14 points for the Red Raiders (9-17, 2-13) and Jaye Crockett added 13.
The Wildcats did not take control until the second half, when reserve Nino Williams jump-started the offense with 11 straight points.
”That’s been one of our keys to our team,” Weber said. ”Every day, it seems like it’s somebody else that steps up. It’s hard to stop every guy that we have.
”I’ve said since the beginning, we have eight starters, and all of them can be very, very productive.”
With Texas Tech leading 44-42, Williams got the lead with a three-point play. He scored again after the Wildcats forced a shot-clock violation. He cashed in under the basket after a turnover. The Red Raiders tried to cool off Williams by using a 30-second timeout, but he promptly drained a jumper, giving Kansas State a 51-44 lead – the Wildcats’ largest of the half to that point – with 11:50 to play.
Moments later, he snagged an offensive rebound, scored again, and then grabbed a defensive rebound.
Williams’ scoring burst started the rest of his team, which continued the one-sidedness with a scalding 24-6 run. Kansas State led 66-50 with less than 4 minutes to play.
”Sometimes you miss shots, sometimes you make them, and I just looked to crash the boards,” Williams said.
Kansas State opened the game with a 12-4 run that was capped by consecutive dunks by Rodney McGruder.
After that solid start, the Wildcats got sloppy, and the Red Raiders took advantage.
”I thought we had a chance to play well against them,” Texas Tech interim coach Chris Walker said. ”If we made a couple layups . we make a couple free throws, I think we go up five in the first half, and it may be a different game.”
The Red Raiders climbed within 15-12 as four Kansas State players committed a turnover each in a 4-minute spurt.
”One of the worst things that happened, we went up 12-4, and then we were a little giddy, we lost a little bit of focus, and to their credit they came right at us,” Weber said.
A 3-pointer by Ty Nurse gave the Red Raiders their first lead of the game with 1:53 to play in the half but a buzzer-beater from the baseline by McGruder gave the Wildcats a 31-30 lead.
Kansas State forward Jordan Henriquez, usually a starter, did not attend the game because he was traveling to New York for his grandmother’s funeral. Gipson started in his place.
”We needed somebody to step up since JO’s not here, and I just made the effort to step up and play harder than I normally play, just made an effort to do it on offense and defense,” Gipson said.
The seniors – of whom Henriquez is one – lead all classes in Kansas State history with 97 victories.
”I hope we keep adding onto that to where they get great distance and maybe no one ever catches them,” Weber said. ”They’ve done well. They’ve stayed focused. We can’t look too far ahead. It’s one at a time.”
— Associated Press —