MANHATTAN — On a night when points were hard to come by and victory wasn't assured until the final minutes, it didn't take long for Thomas Gipson to become Kansas State's go-to player.
The freshman big man scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the Wildcats past scrappy Loyola Chicago 74-61 on Monday at Bramlage Coliseum.
It was a nice step forward for Gipson, who disappointed in his college debut against Charleston Southern last Friday by scoring two points and not getting a single rebound. He didn't need to do much against the Ramblers to say he improved.
But he had bigger goals in mind and did enough inside to provide K-State with a solid low-post presence. He played with so much energy that his teammates seemed stuck in neutral by comparison.
"We saw a lot of him tonight," said junior forward Rodney McGruder. "He played hard and worked for what he got tonight."
Wildcats coach Frank Martin was relieved to see that kind of effort. He thought enough of the way Gipson played in preseason practices that he inserted him into the starting lineup for his first two games.
At 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, Gipson is bigger than anyone else on the roster. But when he didn't use that to his advantage in his debut, Martin decided to motivate him by writing his poor stat line on a dry-erase board in front of the entire team.
"He's got to understand that that's the aggression he's got to play with to be good," Martin said."... I'm tired of him not rebounding the ball and just standing around. But he responded like he has every time we've challenged him up to this point."
While he showed progress in the second game of the year, the Wildcats, as a whole, looked stagnant in front of a sparse crowd.
It took them more than 4 minutes, 30 seconds to score their first points of the game, and they trailed 14-11 late in the first half. They needed a 20-9 run at the end of the game to pull away.
Loyola Chicago's Ben Averkamp scored nine points and gave K-State's defense fits from start to finish. He also snared seven rebounds, and helped the Ramblers total 30 rebounds. They came close to matching the bigger Wildcats on the glass, who grabbed 32.
Will Spradling helped lead the Wildcats' late charge with 15 points, but scored zero points in the first half. This time, Martin decided to share his stat line with the team at halftime.
"You haven't done anything. You've got zeroes all the way across the board," is what Spradling remembers Martin telling him. "He was like, 'You're supposed to be one of our scorers and one of our leaders. Go shoot. Don't hesitate.'"
Rodney McGruder added 14 points, while Jordan Henriquez finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. Combined, they did enough for K-State to start its season with back-to-back lackluster wins over mid-major opponents.
It now has more than a week to prepare for Maryland Eastern Shore. The Wildcats will get senior forward Jamar Samuels back from suspension that game and have a full roster to play for the first time.
By then, Martin is hopeful K-State can begin to show more noticeable progress.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys," Martin said."... It wasn't pretty, it wasn't great, but once again we were in a tough moment and we were disciplined enough to make plays."