KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s nothing like a December visit to the Sprint Center to revitalize the Kansas State Wildcats.
K-State, still searching for and identity and at the very least some continuity, took a step in the right direction Saturday night in the Wildcat Classic, treating a crowd of 14,884 to an impressive 71-64 victory over Texas A&M.
“I wouldn’t say it’s really the setting,” sophomore guard Marcus Foster said of the Sprint Center, where the Wildcats have won three straight over the last four years. “I would just say this is the time of year if you want to be a good team you’ve got to start clicking, and right now we’re really clicking and we’ve got to keep it up.”
The Wildcats, 7-4, certainly clicked in the first half, shooting a sizzling 82 percent from the field on the way to a 39-32 advantage. They stretched the lead to 14 points in the second half before hitting just enough free throws down the stretch to turn back an A&M rally.
“It happens,” senior forward Nino Williams said of A&M’s late surge, which twice cut the margin to four points in the final minute, 15 seconds. “They hit a couple of shots, but I thought as a team we kept our heads and we ended up grinding it out and we got the win.
“It was actually a good grind-out win because in (Big 12) conference play it’s going to be like that. You’re going to be up seven with two minutes, a minute to go, and we just found a way to win.”
The Wildcats found a way without a major contribution from leading scorer Foster, who drew extra attention from A&M’s defense. Foster finished with 10 points, five below his season average, but had four assists.
Williams led four players in double figures with 17 points while Thomas Gipson added 14 and Wesley Iwundu tied a season high with 10 off the bench on 5 of 5 shooting. The Wildcats shot 61.5 percent for the game.
Kourtney Robinson and Danuel House each had 13 points, Jordan Green 11 and Alex Caruso 10 with six assists for A&M, which slipped to 7-4.
“You’ve got to give Kansas State a lot of credit,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they were really well prepared offensively, really drove the ball and got paint touches and had some guys step up on offense that hadn’t been as consistent.
“They got a lot of layups and drove us at the end of the (35-second) clock. We did a pretty good job trying to take Foster out of it, and what happened was we got over-extended with our defensive pressure.”
K-State still led by 13, 61-48, when Williams scored off an Iwundu behind-the-head assist at the 5:35 mark. Less than a minute earlier, Iwundu electrified the crowd with a one-handed dunk from near the free-throw line.
“That was crazy,” Williams said.
But A&M chipped away, and starting at the 2:29 mark K-State missed six straight free throws — three by Jevon Thomas, two more by Foster and one by Williams before he hit his second attempt for a 66-61 cushion with 30.4 seconds left. That started a run of six makes in a row with Gipson draining two, Foster two and Thomas one.
“Obviously playing here is a special opportunity for our kids,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I kept telling them all week that we’ve got to take advantage of that and make the most of the opportunity.
“To have that crowd was a great energizer, but we also told them that they had to feed the crowd. They can’t feed off the crowd, they’ve got to feed the crowd and I thought we played pretty good basketball.”
The promise of some time off for Christmas didn’t hurt either, according to Williams.
“It’s always a good game because we know we get a break,” he said. “Coach always tells us we’re going to be off for three days so just play your hardest and give (your best effort).
“It’s a turnaround game going into conference play and to finish off the year, so we knew this game was big.”
The Wildcats have a week off before playing host to Texas Southern on Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum, then close out 2014 with a New Year’s Eve visit from Georgia.