Narrow victories rarely come with style points when Texas Tech is involved, and there were certainly none to be claimed by Kansas State on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum.
The Wildcats defeated the Red Raiders 66-58, but they didn’t look good doing it.
Marcus Foster struggled from start to finish, Shane Southwell couldn’t find his offensive rhythm, and Thomas Gipson spent most of the night on the bench. That led to a revolving door of substitutions, and, at times, it felt like K-State had its “B” Team on the floor. Perhaps that’s why the game was close until the end despite the Wildcats possessing a 14 point lead early in the second half.
No matter. K-State, 15-6 overall and 5-3 in the Big 12, walked away from this one feeling relief instead of regret.
“Anytime you win, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but you have got to be happy,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We called this a gut-check week. We were coming off two really tough losses on the road where we competed with top 25 teams and just didn’t find a way to win. We didn’t know how our guys would respond.”
They responded with a victory. So, in that sense, they got everything they needed out of this matchup.
This is the type of game that good teams in the Big 12 simply hope to survive. The Red Raiders, 10-11 and 2-6, are an improved team under first-year coach Tubby Smith. They have beaten Baylor and TCU, and they have been close in most of their conference games.
Weber predicts they “are going to beat some people” as the season moves forward.
K-State held on against them for a bounce-back win, and they did it by getting strong play from unusual sources.
Senior guard Will Spradling kept his recent run of quality play going by scoring 17 points on nine shots. He has scored 37 points in his past three games and is finally looking like the three-point threat he was expected to be. Nino Williams came off the bench and scored 13 points, and Wesley Iwundu had 11 points.
Even little-used reserves Omari Lawrence (five points) and D.J Johnson (four points and seven rebounds) gave K-State a lift.
K-State needed all of their contributions with Foster, the team’s leading scorer, making one shot on his way to two points and Southwell, a senior guard, being held to four points. Gipson, a junior forward, was off for the second straight game, scoring seven points. They combined to make four of 19 shots and play 54 minutes.
“We had no energy and they didn’t get back on defense,” Weber said of the struggling trio. “We can’t let offense dictate what our defense is. It has got to be our foundation. I just think some guys had their heads hanging instead of playing. That second group, the subs, was the one that got us that big lead. They played basically the whole game.”
Few could have anticipated K-State winning a conference game with its main three scorers playing so poorly. But the Wildcats proved their depth is better than advertised.
“We have done that in other games. This isn’t the only game we have really relied on them,” Spradling said. “There have probably been multiple games. Nino has come in multiple games and had big games. Omari has stepped up. (Jevon Thomas) has done well. Our bench has been a real factor for us.”
Added Smith: “They came in and scored 25 points for them. They were very impressive. I thought Lawrence and Willliams, especially, and D.J. Johnson were all good. We knew they had a deep bench and they utilized it effectively.”
What did K-State’s reserves, plus Spradling and Iwundu, do best?
For Weber, the answer was simple. They played hard.
“D.J. played so hard he was tired,” Weber said. “That’s what we ask of the guys. They have got to play to exhaustion.”
Texas Tech hung around thanks to Jaye Crockett, who led the way with 15 points, and Dusty Hannahs, who scored 14 points.
The Wildcats led 34-20 early in the second half when Iwundu threw down a two-handed slam, but the Red Raiders fought back behind three-pointers from Hannahs and driving baskets from Crockett.
K-State struggled to maintain its separation, but it hit more than enough free throws to hold on. It made its final 12, including eight in the final 38 seconds.
“I thought our guys showed a valiant effort,” Smith said. “It just wasn’t enough.”
The Wildcats had hopes for an easier night, but they won’t complain about the outcome.