Wesley Iwundu stared down the lane. He then glanced over at his teammates open on the wing. Before anyone had time to assess the play, Iwundu drove hard to the basket and skied upwards to throw down a monstrous dunk that sent the pro-K-State crowd into a deafening roar.
Not a bad way to enjoy your 20th birthday.
Iwundu has been criticized for his sluggish start to begin the season, much like the way his team has been criticized for the way they’ve started games. He responded with a standout performance on his birthday, scoring 10 points on a perfect shooting night.
His team, on the other hand, gave fans a rare glimpse at what they can do when they get off to a hot start. K-State shot 82.4 percent from the field in the first half, including 10 for 12 to open the game, on their way to a 71-64 win over former Big 12-foe Texas A&M;, 7-3, Saturday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nino Williams led the way for the Wildcats with 17 points on six for eight shooting and five for seven from the free-throw line. Fellow senior Thomas Gipson provided a solid offensive effort with 14 points and six rebounds. He was also perfect from the free-throw line, going six for six on the evening.
“We had some nice plays,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said after the game. “Wesley energized us with the dunk and the behind-the-head pass, and we got the ball into Thomas (Gipson) enough. We had good balance. We played hard, that’s something we’ve talked about. Obviously when you execute and shoot the ball like that it’s pretty impressive.”
With the victory, the Wildcats move to 7-4 on the year with just two more non-conference games remaining. They are also now 6-1 all-time in the Wildcat Classic in games played at the Sprint Center.
“It’s always a good game here because we know we get a break,” Williams said. “Coach always tells us that we’re going be off for three days so we have to play our hardest and give the best effort we can. Usually this is the turnaround game going into conference play, and the last of the year, so we knew this game was probably the biggest game of the season so far. I thought this was our best game overall as a team so far.”
Weber’s squad will look use the win as momentum for the upcoming conference season just as they did two years ago when the Wildcats upset No. 8 Florida at the Sprint Center.
The star of that game was Will Spradling, who enjoyed a 17-point performance in a homecoming-type game. Saturday it was all about Iwundu. The sophomore guard’s dunk put K-State on top of the Aggies 59-46 with under seven minutes to play.
He wasn’t finished there.
The following trip down the court, Iwundu tossed a behind-the-head pass to Williams for a flashy layup, forcing Texas A&M; head coach Billy Kennedy to call a timeout.
Texas A&M; didn’t fold under the pressure, though. In fact, the Aggies slowly chipped away at as much as a 14-point lead to pull within four points with 1:15 remaining in the game.
However, free throws from Gipson and Williams gave K-State the decisive advantage in a “must-have” game according to Williams.
“I thought Kansas State threw a lot of punches at us early, but we responded too late,” Kennedy said. “We have a good team, pretty good character. We didn’t fold, that was the best thing, because it got loud. They made some nice plays, some back-breaking-type plays where teams just fold. We hung in there, but you can’t give a good team that.”
The Wildcats finished shooting 61.5 percent from the field on 24 for 39 shooting. Texas A&M; shot a decent 49 percent from the field and held an advantage in rebounds, assists, steals and four other statistical categories, but could not handle K-State inside the paint from the opening tipoff on.
The Aggies were led by shooting guard Danuel House, who helped his side stay afloat in the first half with 10 points. He finished with 13 points on the night, as did teammate Kourtney Robinson. Texas A&M; had four players in double digits and another with nine points.
K-State jumped out to a quick 21-11 lead in the game after making its first four shots. The lead trended up and down throughout the half before holding steady at 39-32 at halftime.
“It was a good experience for us,” Weber said. “Hopefully we can feed off this and relax a little bit. Nice win, great crowd and a nice Holiday game for us.”
The Wildcats will return to action on Dec. 28 against Texas Southern. The Tigers are 2-8 on the season, but upset Michigan State on the road Saturday 71-64. Tipoff between the Wildcats and Texas Southern is set for 2 p.m. from Bramlage Coliseum.