The final weekend before Christmas is rapidly becoming Kansas State’s favorite time of year for basketball.
Under coach Bruce Weber, the Wildcats have made a habit of playing their best on a semi-neutral court against a name opponent as nonconference play is winding down, and then using that performance as a springboard to bigger and better things.
The latest example came Saturday during a 71-64 victory over Texas A&M in front of 14,884 at the Sprint Center.
“This is just the time of year when, if you want to be a good team, you have to start clicking,” K-State sophomore guard Marcus Foster said, “and right now, we are really clicking. We have got to keep it up.”
Time will tell if the victory has the same lasting impact of beating Florida here two seasons ago or downing Gonzaga last season at Intrust Bank Arena — Texas A&M, 7-3, is not a ranked or heralded team — but it had a similar feel.
K-State, 7-4, took the court in front of a vocal crowd and played better than it had all season, making 82 percent of its shots in the first half and racing to a 14-point lead it never relinquished.
“This is a turnaround game going into conference play to finish out the year,” K-State senior forward Nino Williams said. “We knew going in that this game was probably the biggest game of the season. We just harped on this being our chance of the season, and we took advantage. This was our best game.”
Williams once again led the way, maintaining his torrid scoring pace by attacking defenders and getting to the rim for 17 points. Thomas Gipson bounced back from a sluggish string of games and scored 14 points. And Wesley Iwundu finally regained his freshman form, making all five of his shots, including a vicious transition dunk on his way to 10 points.
It was the type of highlight that had teammates in a tizzy long after the game ended.
“That was the craziest dunk I have ever seen in a game,” Williams said.
Still, the Wildcats stood out as a team in this one, leading handily without Foster contributing at his normal level. Foster, the team’s top scorer, had 10 points on six shots. He waited until 6 minutes, 14 seconds remained in the first half to take his first shot.
K-State didn’t need Foster to do anything more on a night it got across-the-board production.
“They had some guys step up for them offensively that hadn’t been that consistent,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said, “and we had a hard time guarding them.”
About the only thing that didn’t go K-State’s way was late free-throw shooting. A string of misses allowed Texas A&M to close the gap to four on two occasions in the final minutes, but K-State came up with defensive stops when it needed them and walked off the court to loud cheers.
It was a similar scene in 2012, when K-State legitimized an 8-2 start by taking down Florida and going on to win 27 games and claim a share of the Big 12 championship.
It was also comparable to last year, when K-State improved to 8-3 by beating Gonzaga and went on to make the NCAA Tournament.
“It was a huge game, just to get another (power conference) win,” Weber said. “It was a huge win to get some confidence … It has been a little rocky the first six weeks of the season. It hasn’t been easy, but now hopefully we can move forward.”
For the third straight year, the Wildcats can head into Christmas hoping for bigger and better things.
“This game has always turned the tables for K-State,” Foster said. “It was Florida before I got here. It was Gonzaga last year. And now it is Texas A&M. I think it is fueling us and we will be able to push on for a lot of wins coming up.”