MANHATTAN — Almost 24 hours before Kansas State routed Alabama-Huntsville 87-26 on Tuesday to advance to the final rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York, Bruce Weber challenged his team to embrace the opportunity.
“To play in Madison Square Garden should be special for everybody,” Weber said. “I’m not sure our guys realize it is the Mecca of basketball. Many, many tremendous players and games have been played there.”
Turns out the Wildcats didn’t need the reminder.
With three New York natives on the roster — Jordan Henriquez, Shane Southwell and Omari Lawrence — and a veteran team eager to prove itself against name opponents such as Michigan and Pittsburgh, K-State took care of business at Bramlage Coliseum for the second straight night.
With a trip home at stake, Southwell figured they would. He’s been looking forward to this since it was put on the schedule.
“I was ecstatic about it — very, very ecstatic,” Southwell said following Monday’s blowout of Lamar. “To not only get the chance to play at home in front of my family and friends, but to get to play at the Garden … You can’t beat that.”
Consider Henriquez excited, too.
“I’ve been cherishing it,” Henriquez said Monday. “I’ve been preparing for it and working hard for it, because it would be a true memory for us.”
Soon it will be a reality. K-State made sure of that by taking a 36-6 lead over the Chargers, a Division II team that upset North Texas on Monday. Behind 16 points from Southwell, 11 points from Rodney McGruder and 10 points apiece from Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling, the Wildcats dominated.
The 61-point final margin tied the largest margin in program history. Their 47-11 halftime lead tied the largest halftime lead in Bramlage Coliseum. The 26 points they allowed were the fewest scored by an opponent since Savannah State managed 25 against them in 2008.
They came close to setting records by forcing turnovers, making shots and scoring on the fastbreak. They did it all with style.
“We made so many shots today,” Weber said. “There were a lot of good things.”
The highlight of the night came on a lob pass from Spradling to Henriquez. The senior forward caught it well above the rim and threw it down for an emphatic one-hand dunk. He screamed and bounced up the court as the sparse crowd went wild.
Later, freshman DJ Johnson connected on an impressive follow dunk and Thomas Gipson attacked the basket. Four players reached double figures and 13 players scored.
K-State (3-0) will next play North Florida on Sunday at home before taking on Delaware in its next NIT game next Wednesday in New York. A win there would advance the Wildcats to the tournament’s championship game two days later. A loss would send them to the consolation game.
“It will give us the chance to prove ourselves at a high level,” Rodriguez said.
Whatever happens, they now have a fun trip to look forward to.
“This is a big little step for us,” Weber said. “We know we’re going to New York.”