HONOLULU — The Kansas State basketball team made two pretty good discoveries during its 83-58 victory over Southern Illinois on Thursday in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic.
First, it learned how stress-free a game can be when it plays hard from start to finish.
Then it figured out how easy a game can be when it makes shots.
After an early season filled with close games and more second-half comebacks than any K-State fan would like given some of the opponents, the Wildcats took a big early lead over the Salukis, of the Missouri Valley Conference, and went on to win handily.
They did both thanks in large part to a fantastic shooting effort that saw them make 54 percent of their shots from the field and 9 of 14 from three-point range.
"It was real good," said junior guard Jeremy Jones, who played a season-high 25 minutes and scored eight points. "It gives players confidence coming into the next game. When we saw the doubles, we made the extra pass. We shared the ball good and we've got confidence in each other to make shots. We know what we're capable of and today it showed."
K-State advanced to today's semifinals against Texas-El Paso. The Miners beat Clemson 61-48 on Thursday.
In many ways, this victory was a turning point for K-State. By pounding the Salukis (3-6), the Wildcats proved that they can stay focused despite a week of travel and plenty of distractions. It also proved they don't need to face a well-known opponent or be pushed to play their best basketball.
"It's a good sign that the team is jelled in," said senior forward Jamar Samuels, who came off the bench to score 14 points.
Not only did usual contributors Rodney McGruder, Thomas Gipson and Samuels come through with solid efforts, Jordan Henriquez, Adrian Diaz, Angel Rodriguez and Jones played major roles, too.
Behind 13 points from McGruder and 10 points and eight rebounds from Henriquez, K-State took a 48-29 lead at the break. It was by far its largest halftime advantage of the season, besting their previous mark of seven.
Henriquez got the Wildcats going with an energetic driving dunk in the opening minutes, and Rodriguez kept them ahead by sinking five three-pointers on his way to a game-high 17 points. It was the second consecutive quality game for each player.
After a slow start to the season, Rodriguez, a freshman guard, thinks he has fully adjusted to the college game.
"I talked to the coaches and they saw what was going wrong and I started doing the right things back and it worked out," Rodriguez said. "I was looking at the ball instead of looking at the rim. Now I'm looking at the rim."
But seemingly everyone on the roster did something on offensive to give them confidence moving forward. Diaz scored nine points, Gipson added seven and the Wildcats got a season-high 48 points from their bench.
There were a few mistakes that K-State basketball coach Frank Martin wasn't pleased with, though. After the game, he shook his head at the site of 25 fouls and 19 turnovers on the stat sheet.
"We lose to West Virginia and I think we have 18 turnovers," Martin said. "We follow that with North Florida, we have 19 turnovers. Today we had (19) again, 12 in the first half. It's unacceptable."
But the Wildcats shot the ball well enough that none of that mattered.
Martin came into this tournament concerned about how his team would handle the pressure of an opening round game. It wasn't an issue.
"That first game is always difficult," Martin said. "It's out of the way. Now, we've just got to go back like UTEP is doing and coach them through their minds and trust that their minds are going to allow them to physically go out and do what they need to do."