KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the final member of Kansas State’s basketball team made his way into the locker room following a 67-61 victory over No. 8 Florida on Saturday night at the Sprint Center, the Wildcats erupted.
Players, coaches and managers alike screamed and clapped in unison. So much noise they could be heard through the walls and down the hallway.
It was a special moment for the Wildcats. Their first marquee victory and their first major Bruce Weber-era win.
K-State had its first non-conference victory over a top-10 opponent since beating Minnesota in 1981.
“This is big-time,” senior swingman Rodney McGruder said. “We know that we can compete with the best and beat them. This win is a great confidence booster.”
A confidence booster they needed. K-State (9-2) was in the middle of a disappointing trend. It started by beating eight teams from small conferences, but losing twice by double digits to No. 2 Michigan and No. 14 Gonzaga.
Fair or not, the Wildcats were starting to develop a reputation as a team unable to compete with top-notch opponents. Junior guard Will Spradling said earlier this week he thought K-State’s fan base doubted them
But those concerns began to fade away Saturday night.
“Our goal is to be a top-25 team by the time Big 12 play starts,” Spradling said, “and this is a great step forward for us.”
They took it behind Spradling, McGruder and senior forward Jordan Henriquez. And they took it in front of 16,303 vocal fans, easily the largest friendly crowd of the year.
The Wildcats got off to a fast start, built a 33-23 halftime lead and held off a late Florida charge.
Spradling was the most effective player during all three stretches. He led K-State with 17 points, and hit 3 of 8 three-pointers while grabbing six rebounds.
“He opened the defense up a lot,” McGruder said. “Guys starting getting worried about him, because he got it going. He hit (3 of 5) of his threes in the first half. That was big. He spread their defense out.”
That opened up things for his teammates. Henriquez took advantage with nine points, seven rebounds, five blocks and several more shots changed at the rim.
For the first time since Weber became his coach, he looked like the guy who ended his junior season on a tear, averaging a double-double in the postseason.
Weber helped him by challenging him in practice, and urging him to relax on Saturday.
“I’ve been struggling lately and I just went out there and left it all on the floor,” Henriquez said. “Coach tells me all the time, from the day he got here, I have to be consistent. Tonight I just went out and played my heart out.”
McGruder played with passion, too. He added 13 points in a game that felt like a breakthrough.
The most disappointing thing about their two losses was that they came in exactly the same way. K-State competed with No. 2 Michigan for a half at Madison Square Garden, but ended up losing by double digits. Then it played No. 14 Gonzaga to within a point at halftime in Seattle but couldn’t hang in the second half.
Poor offense and brutal starts in the second half hurt the Wildcats both times.
“That was embarrassing,” Spradling said. “We didn’t want to be embarrassed again.”
On Saturday, they were determined to breakthrough against a prominent opponent. They did, sending Florida to its second loss. Its only other defeat came in the final seconds at Arizona.
“Our team didn’t play at the level it needed to to beat Kansas State today,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought their kids played with great passion and great energy. They played really hard and made key plays and key rebounds in crucial situations.”
The most crucial came late, with Martavious Irving and Shane Southwell draining three-pointers late in the second half that kept the Gators at arm’s length.
Despite a strong start and an 11-point lead in the first half, Florida pulled to within 36-35 with 15:58 remaining in the second half and tied things up at 41-41 with 13:21 remaining. Behind 19 points from Patric Young, the Gators made K-State’s comfortable lead disappear quickly.
The first five minutes of the second half is where things have gone wrong for K-State. Like Michigan and Gonzaga, who pulled away in the second half, Florida threatened to do the same.
But K-State didn’t back down this time. Irving nailed a three-pointer to put K-State ahead 44-41. It held onto that lead the rest of the way, but it wasn’t until Southwell made a three-pointer from the corner with 1:33 to go that the Wildcats could start to breathe easy, up 61-53.
“In the huddle, when they made the run, I just said, ‘We have been before,’ ” Weber said. “You get to a point where the other team comes at you. Do you lay down or do you stand up?”
For the first time this season and under Weber, the Wildcats stood up. And celebrated afterward.
“Good team win,” Weber said. “Nice Christmas present for everybody.”