At the end of the season, when fans look back at Kansas State’s 75-55 victory over Texas Tech at Bramlage Coliseum, they probably won’t see anything that makes it stand out from the rest of the schedule.
The 13th-ranked Wildcats were heavily favored and won by a comfortable margin on Monday. They improved to 23-5 and stayed on top of the Big 12 at 12-3.
It was the outcome everyone expected.
But those who braved the threat of bad weather and were in attendance — the arena was roughly two-thirds full — will remember it as the night Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams saved K-State from a disastrous loss that could have derailed its conference championship hopes.
Make no mistake: The Wildcats were in trouble against the struggling Red Raiders — big trouble. Texas Tech, which fell to 9-17 and 2-13 in the Big 12, entered the game on an eight-game losing streak. But the Red Raiders led 44-42 early in the second half and made life miserable on the Wildcats usual contributors.
Senior wing Rodney McGruder was having a quiet night, junior guard Will Spradling struggled to make outside shots and Shane Southwell was mostly ineffective. With senior forward Jordan Henriquez out of town for his grandmother’s funeral, K-State coach Bruce Weber started searching for help in unusual places.
And he got it from Gipson and Williams.
Gipson, a sophomore forward who has had both moments of brilliance and terrible games this season, had a season-high 20 points and eight rebounds. Williams, a sophomore forward who has been in a two-month slump, scored all 11 of his points in the second half and grabbed seven rebounds when K-State needed him most.
“That has been one of the keys to our team,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Every day it seems like it is somebody else that steps up. It is hard to stop every guy that we have. I’ve said from the beginning that we have eight starters, and all of them can be very effective.”
Still, few could have predicted two bench players having such a large impact against Texas Tech. Gipson and Williams were so good that at one point they scored 19 straight points for K-State, with Williams going on an 11-2 run all by himself.
Before they got going, the Wildcats led 34-32. By the time their spurt was over, they led 53-44.
“It was right before our eyes,” Texas Tech guard Josh Gray said. “We didn’t even see what was happening it was so fast.”
They gave K-State breathing room for the first time and it quickly took advantage. It had enough momentum to seize control and turn what was once a close game into a blowout that gave McGruder, Henriquez and Martavious Irving 97 career wins together, making them the most victorious senior class in program history.
“That’s why they are the No. 13 team in the country,” Texas Tech interim coach Chris Walker said. “They beat you in different ways.”
It’s strange to think it wasn’t that long ago that K-State needed McGruder to play at his best to win. Now it can win when he has 10 points and seven rebounds, as he did Monday.
He was hardly involved in K-State’s game-altering run. He didn’t have to with Angel Rodriguez having 16 points and seven assists, Gipson dominating inside and Williams playing some of his best basketball.
The last two months haven’t always been easy for Williams. He started the season in the starting lineup, but was relegated to the bench when Southwell began playing well. But his two best games — a 17-point effort against Oklahoma State and his fine showing Monday — have helped K-State stay on top of the Big 12 standings.
“Coach always tells me to keep a good attitude and a good head,” Williams said. “You never know when you are going to play. When Shane is playing well I know I am not going to play that much or if I get in foul trouble I know I’m not going to play. But I keep a good attitude. As long as you play hard everything else will take care of itself.”
Gipson’s motivation was simpler. Without Henriquez in the starting lineup, he knew he had to contribute more than usual. By all accounts he did, making seven of nine shots and grabbing four offensive rebounds.
“We needed somebody to step up since (Jordan) wasn’t here,” Gipson said. “I made the effort to step up and play harder than usual. I made the effort to do it on both offense and defense.”
He played his best at the right time. So did Williams.
Together, they helped K-State earn an expected victory in an unexpected way.