NEW YORK — Before they arrived at Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Kansas State basketball team hadn’t been tested.
That changed during a 66-63 semifinal victory over Delaware on Wednesday.
The Blue Hens (2-2) pushed the Wildcats (5-0) much harder than the four nondescript opponents K-State pummeled on the way here. They made it fight until the final moments, when Will Spradling sank four straight free throws to clinch the game.
The Wildcats will play for the tournament title on Friday when they take on the winner of Wednesday’s late game between Pittsburgh and No. 4 Michigan.
“We did not play pretty,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “That was pretty obvious. It had been so good for us at home and we had defended so well and the games came easy. Now it didn’t come quite as easy. We missed a lot of easy shots and made some mistakes defensively, but we made a good run at the right time.”
A closer-than-expected victory over Delaware, a Colonial Athletic team that surpassed expectations by upsetting Virginia and making it to New York, might help prepare K-State for the championship game. It should be easier to respond to pressure now that they’ve won a tight game.
“Hopefully you get through one of those games,” Weber said, “and tomorrow we come back and play a little more relaxed and play the game of basketball the way we believe we can play.”
But one thing’s for sure: They will need to play better on Friday for that experience to make a difference.
Delaware held K-State to 30.3 percent shooting in the first half and Shane Southwell had to make a jumper to give the Wildcats a 27-25 lead at intermission. And every time the Wildcats tried to pull away in the second half, Devon Saddler hit a shot that kept the Blue Hens close.
Behind an impressive game from their leading scorer, who made 12 of 22 attempts while pouring in 32 points, and a fine effort from big man Jamelle Hagins, who scored 12 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Delaware was in it the whole way.
Terrell Rogers made a runner in the lane with 27.6 seconds remaining to pull Delaware within 62-60 and Sadler hit another layup soon after to make the score 64-62.
But the Wildcats did respond to that well enough to pull out a victory on a neutral court. Spradling, a junior guard who scored 12 points while taking perfect care of the ball and dishing out seven assists, calmly stepped to the line and made key free throws every time his team needed him.
Spradling wanted the ball. He attempts close to 100 free throws a day and refuses to leave K-State’s practice facility until he has made at least 40 in a row.
“It was two points every time they fouled me,” Spradling said. “My teammates showed a lot of confidence in me and helped me get the ball. But we all showed a lot of confidence at the end there.”
K-State shook off an ugly half and played well for portions of the second half.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well at all to start the game,” Spradling said. “We were missing layups. That is something we normally will make. You could tell that we were nervous. Once we settled down, we started playing.”
Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson both added 12 points. The Wildcats did seem to be at their best when it looked like the Blue Hens were threatening.
With about 12 minutes remaining, K-State clung to a 39-38 lead. It needed a big play. That’s when Southwell, a New York native, drained a three to spark a 15-5 run.
He gave the Wildcats momentum. Adrian Diaz made a layup, Rodriguez scored a driving layup through a foul for three points, Spradling made a floater and Gipson made a layup. Then Southwell hit another three to cap the run.
When the shot swished, he turned and screamed. He was excited, and so was the entire K-State team.
“It was a new feeling,” said Rodney McGruder, who scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds. “But we battled adversity and came out with the win. We are going to have more close games. Hopefully we can continue to handle it well.”
Things ended up closer than the Wildcats hoped when Delaware pulled to within one possession several times late. And coaches were displeased with Rodriguez fouling Sadler with 1 second remaining during a three-point attempt, even though they were leading by four.
But those frustrations began to fade when players starting looking ahead to the tournament’s championship game. That game will reveal much more about K-State than even this one did.
“Coach told us before we came here that we needed a close game,” Rodriguez said. “The games we had at home weren’t that hard. This is what we came for. We came to compete and prove ourselves.”