Like the rest of his Kansas State teammates, freshman forward Thomas Gipson was in shock when coach Frank Martin announced shortly before Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse that the Wildcats would be without senior Jamar Samuels.
The only difference? Gipson would be the one trying to fill Samuels’ shoes. It was role Gipson had been in before, at the start of the season when Samuels served a two-game suspension. But Gipson, who averages 7.1 points and 4.6 rebounds, hadn’t started since a Feb. 11 loss at Texas and hadn’t played more than 20 minutes since Jan. 31 at Iowa State.
“Frank didn’t say much about (Samuels); he just told me I was going to start,” Gipson said. “Playing without one of your best players is always going to hurt, but we did the best we could.
“I don’t think that Jamar being out affected my performance. I thought we played hard in the first half, the game just got away from us in the second half.”
Gipson played 30 minutes in a 75-59 loss to the Orange. He scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds, hitting two of nine shots and going four for eight at the free-throw line.
At 6 feet 7 and 275 pounds, Gipson had little trouble establishing a presence on the block but couldn’t convert several opportunities around the basket. He struggled to hold down the post when 7-foot forward Jordan Henriquez got in foul trouble early in the second half.
“When Jordan was in, I’m playing center and, of course, it helps to have him at forward because he rebounded so well,” Gipson said. “When he went out, it was (like) we lost a physical presence, but you can’t say that we lost just because Jordan was out of the game.”
Henriquez’s absence was sorely missed — his dunk brought K-State to within 33-32 with 16:30 left in the second half. After committing his third foul just 30 seconds later, Henriquez had to sit and the Wildcats brought in 6-6 guard Shane Southwell.
“Not being able to practice or play a game (without Samuels) … it’s hard to make adjustments,” Martin said. “You then have to (make) do with the new players that you have.”
The Orange began to attack the rim immediately, converting two layups and a dunk as it pushed the lead to 43-34 before Henriquez came back in for Gipson at the 13:16 mark.
“We were put in kind of a crazy situation before the game, and like I said, I thought we played hard,” Gipson said. “Syracuse is one of the best, if not the best, teams in the country. They’ve got some of the best players in the nation. We tried everything tonight and it didn’t work.”