It wasn’t easy. But it was a win. And after the events of the preceding 72 hours, Kansas State’s men’s basketball team would take a victory in whatever form it came. K-State held off a Wisconsin-Milwaukee club playing its first game of the season, escaping with a 76-75 victory at Bramlage Coliseum on Friday.
“Just really happy for our players,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. “Obviously, the last two games have been difficult. We’ve got such a young group. It’s just a difficult time, not only for K-State basketball, (but) for the state of Kansas, for the United States, for the world, dealing with COVID and all the different situations and issues. To our guys’ credit, they stuck with it.”
Though the Wildcats (2-4) led 76-69 with only 44 seconds remaining, the Panthers scored six points in the next 38 seconds to draw within one. The visitors then fouled freshman guard Nijel Pack, who went to the line for two free throws with under two seconds to play. He missed the first, then purposely missed the second.
“To me, getting the ball inbounds is impressive,” Weber said. “I still remember the Texas game at Texas, and they would put (Mo) Bamba on the ball, and he’s got arms that are like Spider-Man, and Dean Wade had to take it out. We had to get it in five straight times, and that was as hard as it was. And this, I’ll be honest: I drew something up in the huddle that we hadn’t practiced, and to our guys’ credit, they made the right play.”
Following a timeout by Wisconsin-Milwaukee (0-1), inbounder Grant Coleman made a fatal mistake: He didn’t throw it far enough, allowing K-State senior guard Mike McGuirl to snag it out of the air to seal the one-point win.
McGuirl was a scorer and distributor, ending with 11 points and eight assists — against just one turnover.
Weber argued he might be the best game McGuirl ever has played in a K-State uniform.
“I thought tonight, he made the right play and let the game come,” he said. “The last thing I wrote on was, ‘We’ve got to play with a pace. We’ve got to play with poise.’ Both those things, at the end of the game, we got some execution. We played with some poise, some pace. We got the ball in. We played strong, and as I said, we played together. To have an assist-to-turnover ratio like that is pretty impressive.”
Not that he did it alone.
It was a balanced offensive effort for K-State, with five players posting double-digit scoring efforts.
A trio of newcomers led the way for the Wildcats, with freshman forward Davion Bradford pouring in a game-high 18 points, one point ahead of fellow freshman Selton Miguel. Williams, a junior college transfer, had 16 points. Pack finished with 12 points.
“I think part of it’s experience,” Weber said of the newcomer’s success Friday. “It’s playing in games, coming in and practicing hard. People say, ‘Well, why didn’t you do this?’ We haven’t had practice, guys. I’m sorry. It’s just, you can’t get better. There’s an old saying, ‘Twenty-nine days creates a habit.’ It also takes 29 days to break a bad habit. We haven’t even had 29 games together. So it’s hard. Every day, it’s new.”
Bradford downplayed his performance, though.
“I was just doing everything my coaches needed me to, setting up ball screens, executing plays, and as I set the ball screens, I’d just roll off real hard,” he said. “The coaches were teaching me in practice (to do) stuff like that, so it was just more executing plays and just rolling through the role of basketball, doing my role.”
Early on, the Wildcats picked up where they left off the last time they were on the floor — they never led in Tuesday’s 81-68 home loss to Fort Hays State. Wisconsin-Milwaukee then ran off the first seven points of Friday’s contest.
But K-State picked itself up off the mat, going on a 14-0 run over the next six minutes to double up the visitors.
K-State came out the break hot, particularly from deep. The Wildcats made five of their first seven shots, going 4-for-6 behind the 3-point arc and pushing their lead to 52-44 — their largest advantage of the night — with 13:26 to play.
It was far from over, though, as Wisconsin-Milwaukee rallied to knot the game at 57-all five minutes later.
From there, the lead changed hands three times before the Wildcats surged ahead for good, helped by key plays down the stretch from Miguel (a rim-rattling dunk with 4:30 to go), McGuirl (a 3 that pushed the lead to four, 71-67, with 2:19 to play) and Williams (another 3, this one from the corner, 59 seconds after McGuirl’s splash).
Despite those efforts, the Wildcats still had to sweat out the final minute to avoid its third loss in as many games.
That they avoided that fate, Bradford said, was a shot in the arm.
“It was a huge relief, especially our last win with UMKC,” he said. “We’ve been working really hard for this, because we’ve been speaking out about it and having this great mindset about it — of us winning. So it was a great relief, especially in the locker room, especially after the game.”