Kansas State’s 72-55 victory over George Washington on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum was yet another example of how far the Wildcats have come this season.
The same group that lost its opener to Northern Colorado has reeled off eight straight victories, with three — Mississippi, Gonzaga and George Washington — coming against quality opponents. Beating the Colonials might go down as the best win yet.
With previous victories over Miami, Maryland, Rutgers and Creighton, George Washington, 11-2, came to Manhattan on the verge of breaking into the national polls. Now K-State, 10-3, is in the same position.
Bruce Weber challenged his team to reach this point when it left the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in late November with a 2-3 record, suggesting it had the talent to go undefeated in December. But he wasn’t sure if the Wildcats could pull off the feat.
Now that they have, he says they have made “light years” worth of progress.
“We were solid defensively, but we weren’t very good rebounding. Even when we would play good defense they would get a rebound," Weber said. “Now we are much better at that and figuring out roles. The older guys, the veterans, are all playing better and the younger guys are looking confident.”
That was once again the case Tuesday, when the Wildcats dominated in front of a nearly full arena after a few shaky moments at the beginning of the afternoon.
Though the final score won’t show it, the Colonials looked on their way to knocking off another respected opponent before the first media timeout. They made seven of their first nine shots to take a 15-6 lead, and the Wildcats had to call a timeout to regroup less than 5 minutes in.
“What the heck is going on,” Weber remembers asking his team. “We have been one of the best defensive teams and this team is just beating us up … They beat us on everything. I don’t know if we weren’t ready to play or what, but we definitely picked it up.”
Indeed, it was a different game from then on.
K-State fought back behind a career-high 21 points from Shane Southwell and lockdown defense from Jevon Thomas to score 20 straight points and to take a 43-30 lead at halftime.
“That run knocked their spirit out,” Weber said. "After that we never really let them get close. I didn’t think we were very sharp in the second half, maybe a little erratic. Still, you win by 17 against a team that is in the top 50 of the RPI and in the top 30 of the polls, it’s a good win.”
Southwell was at his best from behind the three-point line, draining three of six, but he did a little bit of everything. Thomas Gipson was key inside, scoring 12 points, and Marcus Foster had his usual 15 points. But what made this game unique for K-State was the support it received off the bench.
Thomas, a freshman point guard who was playing in his second game, delivered impressive passes and defense whenever he was on the floor. Nino Williams came off the bench to score nine points and Omari Lawrence added five points.
“It’s real good. It provides a lot of depth to our team,” Gipson said. “The teams we have faced, I don’t think they have a lot of depth. Once one of us gets tired we are subbing out and it’s not like we are missing a beat when somebody else comes in. I think that is real key for us and real big for us in the Big 12.”
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan thought Thomas made the biggest difference, even though he didn’t score.
"Their point guard dominated us," Lonergan said. "We couldn’t get into our offense."
K-State hopes to continue that type of across-the-board play when Big 12 play begins Saturday against Oklahoma State.
They improved throughout December, but they want to keep winning through March.
"I am getting to a point where I am feeling more and more confidence that we can do this and we are becoming a better team," Weber said. "We have definitely made progress. Now we have to move forward."