On one end of the court, Thomas Gipson fought his way to the rim and made a contested layup. On the other, he blocked back-to-back shots and helped his teammates score in transition.
The crowd of 11,990 at Bramlage Coliseum, easily the largest of the season, roared in approval.
That sequence didn’t go down as the decisive moment in Kansas State’s 61-58 victory over Mississippi on Thursday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, but it might have been the most important. Not only did it bring energy to an arena that has felt lifeless this year, it showed the Wildcats were willing to fight for every inch against an opponent that entered the game undefeated.
It didn’t matter that Ole Miss quickly rallied from a four-point deficit and took a 53-49 lead with 4 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the second half. Or that flamboyant guard Marshall Henderson screamed obscenities at the student section when momentum was swinging the Rebels’ way.
K-State kept its poise and landed its first signature victory of the season.
“We made some strides,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I think we grew up tonight. We have talked a lot about gut checks, we have talked a lot about roles. … In the big picture you beat a very, very good team that is going to win a lot of games.”
The Wildcats, 5-3, wildly celebrated when it was over — partially because the win will help ease the sting of three early losses but also because it came in wild fashion over the Rebels, 6-1.
K-State held a 59-55 lead in the final minute, but Henderson hit a three-pointer that kept things interesting until the closing seconds. The Wildcats’ Will Spradling made one of two free throws with 15.1 seconds remaining, and the Rebels had one last shot to tie or win the game.
They scrambled downcourt and Henderson launched another three, this time from well outside. He missed badly, and K-State closed out the victory.
“This is very exciting,” said K-State freshman guard Marcus Foster, who scored 15 points and hit a key three-pointer late. “We hurt ourselves with losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte. Now we are on the big stage and showing all the guys who are involved with the NCAA Tournament that we can compete with and beat a very good team.”
Gipson, a junior forward who scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds, led the charge.
He called for the ball down low, played tough defense, made all but one shot and became K-State’s go-to player. Weber has urged his starters to step up in clutch situations, and Gipson embraced the challenge.
“Thomas Gipson was the difference in the game,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “He was six for seven and every one of them were huge momentum swings.”
Gipson did most of his damage on the baseline, sinking layup after layup with his left hand. Kennedy said his players knew what was coming. They simply couldn’t stop it.
“There were lots of times when I felt confident,” Gipson said. “Coach Weber wanted me to make plays down the stretch. The last seven minutes the ball was always going into me. But when they were helping on me, Marcus made a shot and Marcus made a three. It all goes hand in hand. When I am doing my work inside, people on the outside get to get open.”
K-State led 31-29 at halftime and held on in the second half.
But it wasn’t easy. Jarvis Summers led the way for Ole Miss by scoring 18 points, while Henderson managed 13.
Stopping Henderson was priority No. 1 for the Wildcats all night. Spradling and Foster took turns defending Henderson, and did a decent job against him. Most of his looks were low-percentage shots, though he made shots late.
The way K-State was fighting, that wasn’t enough.
“It’s a huge win for us, there is no doubt,” Weber said. “We didn’t play very well. I’m not sure we coached very well. But we toughed it out. … We could have given in, but we didn’t. We came right back and found a way to win.”