Kansas State’s 74-71 victory over No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday was filled with statements, but the most telling moment of the day might have come after it was over.
As Oklahoma State basketball coach Travis Ford was wrapping up his postgame news conference, he found himself talking less about his team, which many have picked to win the Big 12 this season, than the one that defeated it in front 12,528 raucous fans.
The Big 12 basketball season was only a few hours old, but a power shift had already occurred.
"They have three starters off the team that won the Big 12 championship last year," Ford said. "This is a good basketball team, and they have proven it thus far by winning a lot of big games here lately. Obviously, they were banged up early in the season, but they are going to finish strong in this league — very, very strong."
In other words, K-State’s title defense is underway.
Few saw this coming when the Wildcats opened the season with three losses in their first five games. But no one can ignore what they have accomplished since. K-State (11-3, 1-0 Big 12) has now won nine straight and is off to a strong start in conference play.
"It was a good win for us," K-State forward Thomas Gipson said. "We call it a bar fight in the locker room. We felt like it was one of the toughest games we have played so far and for us to be young and come out and get a huge win against the No. 6 team in the nation — that feels real good.
"Now they have an extreme amount of confidence knowing that we can beat anybody in the country."
Indeed, this was the type of win that will carry added meaning.
Not only did it continue the Wildcats’ recent hot streak, it gave them a victory over Oklahoma State (12-2, 0-1), the highest ranked team in the conference, and will likely push them into the top 25 when the national polls are released next week.
It also sends a message to the rest of the conference that K-State, which shared the league championship with Kansas a year ago, is serious about defending its crown.
"The guys were definitely excited in the locker room," K-State coach Bruce Weber said. "Mississippi was huge, Gonzaga was pretty big, George Washington too, but this was a whole different step for us."
The Wildcats won the back-and-forth affair behind 17 points from freshman Marcus Foster, 15 points from reserve forward Nino Williams and 11 points and 10 rebounds from Gipson.
They needed a group effort to stay close when Oklahoma State jumped out to an early five-point lead and Shane Southwell encountered foul trouble. And they got it. Freshman Jevon Thomas was once again impressive off the bench, scoring eight points and dishing out five assists, and Will Spradling added nine points. That allowed them to pull within 38-37 at halftime.
Oklahoma State looked poised to build on its lead when it went up 48-44 with 13:05 to go, but that’s when the game began to swing K-State’s way.
Cowboys star guard Marcus Smart, who scored 15 points, inexplicably picked up a technical foul when he slapped the backboard following a dunk with 13:05 to go. It was his fourth foul, and it sent him to the bench for much of the second half.
He didn’t re-enter the game until 4:47 remained, and by then K-State was ahead 61-60.
"When you lose one of the top players in the country things become more difficult," Ford said. "It’s not the perfect scenario. You are already hurting with depth, but we held our own."
Things got worse with Smart on the court. He was out of rhythm, and looked a step slow. He missed a layup the first time he touched the ball and later misfired on back-to-back free throws. All while Gipson hit a jumper and Foster converted a layup to put K-State on top 65-60.
K-State got back in the game in Smart’s absence, and then took over with him on the floor.
"It is always hard as a player to sit for that long and then come in and try to get going," Smart said.
Still, Oklahoma State fought back to as close as one point on several occasions down the stretch, including a Phil Forte three-pointer that made the score 72-71 with 8 seconds remaining. But it never took the lead. K-State kept the Cowboys at bay with defense and free throws.
Williams made back-to-back free throws to extend the lead to 74-71 with 5 seconds remaining.
"I was just thinking like it was the first five minutes of the game," Williams said. "I just relaxed."
That forced Oklahoma State into a desperate situation. Ford drew up a play that got the ball to Smart, but he barely got up court in time to heave a potential game-tying shot. It missed, clanging off the right side of the rim.
The Wildcats responded by dancing across the court while the capacity crowd on hand filled the arena with more noise than it has felt all season.
That was a telling moment, too.
"What can you say? It is just a great win — a gutsy win by our guys. They just kept battling," Weber said. "(The Cowboys) are a potential Final Four team, I do not think there is any doubt about that. We were able to compete with them and find a way to win. We are 1-0 in the Big 12."