No matter how much stress the men’s basketball team (5-5) has caused its fans to start the year, the team sits with a .500 record heading into Big 12 Conference play after a 60-58 win over Omaha on Tuesday.
The Wildcats youth movement caused a bumpy ride for everyone surrounding the program. Head coach Bruce Weber continues to look for new ways to solve stagnant offensive issues and players regret not taking shots in-game. Poor shooting, shot selection and turnovers continue to plague the Wildcats.
On Tuesday, Kansas State still struggled to take efficient shots and struggled with turnovers against Omaha, but still somehow managed to find a way to win after a short holiday break.
Despite the troubles, the win against the Mavericks is a nod to the improvements made over the course of the last five games.
“Definitely got a nice Christmas gift tonight,” Weber said. “I’m not sure we deserved the win, but we made some plays when it counted. Got some stops when it counted. … A lot of guys contributed. We found a way to when and that’s the most important thing. … But obviously, we’ve got to be better if we want a chance to beat people [in conference play].”
The message from Weber coming into Tuesday’s game was to not take anything for granted. Even though Omaha came into the game with a poor record and a bad reputation on offense, the Mavericks came out swinging. Early in the first half, a 21-3 Omaha run had K-State looking for answers.
That’s when senior guard Mike McGuirl stepped up and started making plays. Even though he came into the game shooting 25 percent on possessions where the Wildcats isolated him in the offense, McGuirl made two huge threes to cut into the lead.
At the half, K-State held a 32-30 lead after a 14-1 run.
In the second half, the big runs were still prominent, but it was much more of a back-and-forth affair. It ultimately came down to the three-point line. Both teams down the stretch valued the three-ball more than getting opportunities in the paint.
Both McGuirl and freshman guard Nijel Pack hit big shots down the stretch to pull the game closer and ultimately tie it. But at times, open shots were passed up, mainly from sophomore DaJuan Gordon.
“I think I was too passive,” Gordon said. “I should’ve shot the ball more. I was passing up opportunities to shoot the ball to create for others, but I think I played alright. Not good, but OK.”
Even with Gordon’s lack of shot attempts, Weber was impressed with his all-around effort. Gordon led the team with 10 rebounds and added five assists to his stat line. He finished the night with six points.
“He’s definitely doing what he can do,” Weber said. “That effort and energy he brings is really important for us.”
Even with the miscues on offense, K-State was within shouting distance. Pack hit back-to-back shots with under two minutes to go to tie the game. After a Gordon foul with 17.6 seconds left, K-State had the ball, was down a single point and got a chance to take the lead.
McGuirl brought the ball down the floor, expecting a screen from freshman forward Davion Bradford. The play was foiled, but McGuirl’s experience kicked in. He drove and passed the ball into the corner where freshman guard Selton Miguel let a three fly.
Miguel drilled it, and K-State had a two-point lead with eight seconds remaining.
Omaha brought the ball down and got an open look from deep to win the game, but the attempt rimmed out. The Wildcats narrowly avoided what could have been another disappointing loss.
“I missed a lot of shots during the game, but coach Weber said to keep shooting,” Miguel said. “I had an opportunity in the corner, Mike [McGuirl] gave me a good pass and I took the shot. … We needed this win.”
Weber, like he’s said all year, was just impressed with Miguel’s ability to make a play when the team needed it most.
“Fundamentally, he doesn’t have all the things we’d like [him to have],” Weber said. “He’s still learning the game, but he just makes plays. He doesn’t always do what we ask, but he makes plays. … He’s very, very willing to take a big shot.”
With the low-scoring, grinding win, Weber just hopes his team can learn from it — both the rights and the wrongs.
“Are we great yet? No,” Weber said. “We’ve made some strides and we’re starting to understand who we are. We’ve got to keep fighting and grinding — hopefully, we’ve gained a little confidence. But at the same time learn from [tough games]. We’ve got to ask: Why do we put ourselves in this bind? We can’t do this. We’ve got to be better on offense and not give easy ones on defense. It’s learning from wins and learning from losses.”
On the night, McGuirl led the Wildcats with 13 points, four rebounds and six assists. He had just two turnovers. Miguel was the only other K-State player in double-figures with 11 points. Pack had nine points, two rebounds and two steals in a supporting role.
Senior guard Ayo Akinwole, who tallied a game-high 19 points on 7-9 shooting, led Omaha.
Up next, K-State faces TCU after the new year on Jan. 2 in Bramlage Coliseum. The game is on ESPNU at 1 p.m. with radio coverage through the K-State Sports Network.
“We were 1-4, now we’re 5-5,” Weber said. “Now where do we go from here?”