The Kansas State men’s basketball team was at a crossroads at the end of November.
(Kansas State’s Shane Southwell shoots over a George Washington defender on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum).
K-State was sitting at 3-3, its season needing an upswing after a dreadful season-opening loss to Northern Colorado and a seventh-place showing at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
A goal was set.
“We had seven games in December with five of those at home and the one in Wichita and obviously, the game against Tulane, and we had to get ourselves back in contention for postseason play,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. “We needed to go undefeated in December and that was on us.”
The Wildcats did just that on Tuesday, closing out 2013 by winning their seventh straight game — a 72-55 victory over George Washington in Bramlage Coliseum — while earning their second quality win in the last 10 days.
Of course, there was a time when it looked like the Wildcats (10-3) would fall just short of their December goal, especially after the Colonials (11-2) opened the game with a 15-6 lead.
That’s when Weber called a timeout to try and regroup in a hurry.
“I asked ‘what’s going on?’” Weber said. “We are one of the best defensive teams in the country and they were picking us apart. It wasn’t just layups, they were beating us on post-ups as well. They were just beating us on everything. I don’t know if we weren’t ready to play but we managed to pick it up.”
Weber sent his players back on the court, subbed in Jevon Thomas for his Bramlage debut, and hoped the Wildcats would respond to his words. K-State, guided by senior guard Shane Southwell and reserves Nino Williams and Omari Lawrence, went on a 20-0 run from there, pushing its lead to 26-15.
The run lasted more than 8 minutes and showed just how strong K-State’s defense can be this season.
“Our defense during the 8-10 minutes where they didn’t score, did a great job and that kind of knocked their spirit out,” Weber said. “After that, we really never let them get close.”
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said Thomas gave his point guard fits all day.
“In all honesty, I think it was their point guard just dominating us,” he said. “We couldn’t get into an offense. He got up into our point guard and we really struggled with the ball. We couldn’t get into any of our sets. We ended up not getting good shots and those led to easy shots for K-State.
“I thought the kid, Jevon, dominated that game, despite not making a field goal, with his defensive ball pressure.”
Southwell scored the first eight points of the 20-0 run, the first two field goals coming off passes from Thomas. The senior finished with a career-high 21 points — 14 points in the first half alone. Southwell’s big game came on the heels of scoring a previous career-high 19 points against Tulane last Saturday.
Weber said Southwell and Wesley Iwundu’s size caused defensive problems for George Washington, often leading to open shots for the Wildcat senior. Lonergan said K-State took advantage.
“Yeah, he killed us,” Lonergan said of Southwell. “He’s a tough matchup because he can handle the ball, he can shoot it. We were really concerned with him coming into the game. It was disappointing because we got off to a really good start, but they just played with so much more energy and were more physical than us. That combined with his scoring completely changed the whole game.”
K-State opened the second half with a basket and a 3-pointer from Marcus Foster before the Colonials charged back to pull within 14 points of the lead. They would never come any closer.
George Washington made just 5 of 25 shots from the field in the second half and finished with a season-low 34 percent shooting from the field.
(Kansas State junior forward Thomas Gipson dunks the ball against George Washington on Tuesday afternoon at Bramlage Coliseum. Gipson had 12 points in the Wildcats’ 72-55 victory).
Lonergan said the Wildcats’ defense was tough — anchored by Thomas.
“They have a very good defensive coach, and that is why I told our guys that this is not the same team that beat us last year,” he said. “That physical play really hurt us. That’s what their coach does and if (Thomas) is good as they think he is, because they are playing him over Nigel Johnson, then that will be a key for their season.
“That defense is pretty good. Joe (McDonald) has played some pretty good teams and nobody has taken the ball from him like that.”
Foster finished with 15 points, while Thomas Gipson added 12. Williams scored nine off the bench and Lawrence had five.
Thomas finished with no points, missing on all four shots from the field, but added six assists to go along with zero turnovers.
“He had 10 assists and no turnovers (in his first two games),” Weber said of Thomas. “He goes a little fast sometimes. He can get by anyone. He’s got to keep his balance and the ball. Last week, we had not gone against a 1-3-1 (zone) and we put 10 seconds on the shot clock and he dribbled through the gap and dished it out to somebody. I didn’t teach him that. That’s just natural instinct and that is the nice thing about him.
“After the first day of practice, he was just laying on the floor because his whole body was cramping. This is a guy who has not played full-court basketball with college players in three months. Everyday his conditioning gets a little better and he just needs to pick up some concepts offensively and defensively.”
The Wildcats will now move to Big 12 play this Saturday when they host, No. 6 Oklahoma State inside Bramlage Coliseum, beginning at 3 p.m.