MANHATTAN – In the final seconds of Kansas State’s 70-63 victory over No. 8 Kansas on Monday at Bramlage Coliseum, when it became obvious the Wildcats were going to win, Thomas Gipson smiled and waved his arms at the student section roaring with excitement a few feet away.
He cherished the exchange, lingering near midcourt and ignoring the activity around him.
The reaction was understandable for the senior forward. He had been waiting for this all year.
A K-State basketball season filled with unusual and unpredictable results took its wildest, and most positive, turn Monday, setting off a party at midcourt the instant the final buzzer sounded.
The Wildcats (14-15, 7-9 Big 12), giving maximum effort in front of a juiced crowd, knocked off the Jayhawks (22-6, 11-4) to break a stretch of dismal play with their most uplifting victory.
They have now defeated Kansas at home in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1983, before this arena was built. K-State coach Bruce Weber pushed that parallel hard.
“We showed them video of last year,” Weber said. “We made them sit on the bench and showed it to them. There were tears in my eyes. I told them, ‘It is a special memory you will remember for the rest of your life. Why not make another one?’”
Gipson helped make it happen by scoring 12 points and starting the game on a hot streak that energized the building. Then, as the game went on, Nino Williams poured in 15 points and Nigel Johnson entered hero territory by scoring a career-high 20.
Before K-State took the court Monday, Weber made something clear: he said one of his players, it didn’t matter who, would need to play a special game in order to give the Wildcats a shot against the favored Jayhawks.
Johnson took those words to heart, draining three-pointers without fear and aggressively attacking the basket. He made four of five shots from three, surprising KU defenders that sagged off him in the first half, and mixed things up by whizzing by them once they started playing closer.
“The environment was great, but you can easily come out and get overly excited,” Johnson said. “So I just tried to stay calm, and after I saw a couple shots fall I was just playing basketball and went from there.”
His production was particularly valuable given the struggles of leading scorer Marcus Foster, who scored six points on 13 shots.
“Nigel was huge,” Weber said. “He came out of nowhere. He was so bad against Baylor and then so good tonight … It feels good. We got them two years in a row. It is a big-time win for everybody.”
Just about everyone wearing a K-State uniform played well. All of them played hard.
It was a winning formula the Wildcats had been working toward for weeks.
“We really didn’t have anything to lose so we just came out fighting,” Williams said. “They are the first-place team in the league and they get everybody’s best shot. We just gave them our best shot.”
The Wildcats entered the day coming off a pair of uncompetitive defeats against TCU and Baylor, and they had lost seven of their past eight games. Weber regularly complained about a lack of effort from his players.
It was a frustrating run of for everyone involved, but they bounced back in a big way against their in-state rivals.
“We just talked. We talked a lot,” Weber said. “We play well here. A week ago we played Oklahoma and gave one of our best efforts. We just said, ‘Hey, you have got to come together. You are going to regret it in the future if you don’t. The opportunities are slipping away.’ They focused on today and how they could be successful.”
K-State led 31-30 at halftime, but Kansas built a 41-33 lead early in the second period. For a moment it appeared as though K-State was on its way to another disappointing loss, especially with Perry Ellis scoring a game-high 24 points.
“I would vote him (Big 12 Player of the Year),” Weber said of Ellis. “He has carried them all year.”
But K-State answered back with a run of its own with Gipson hitting a pair of free throws to give the Wildcats a 55-54 lead with 8:01 remaining. They led the rest of the way, pulling ahead by enough to soak up the atmosphere before it was over.
It was a rewarding and relieving night for everyone involved.
Now the Wildcats can get back to .500 with a victory against Iowa State in their final home game on Saturday against Iowa State.
It was equally frustrating for Kansas, which lost its one-game lead in the conference standings and is now tied with Iowa State. The Jayhawks may find themselves in the unusual situation of rooting for the Wildcats later this week.
“Our league is a monster,” KU coach Bill Self said. “It’s not a bad thing to lose on the road. The team that plays the best the last two weeks has a good chance.”
K-State doesn’t have a conference championship or realistic postseason aspirations, but it will try to play equally hard as the season comes to a close.
It wants to recreate what it accomplished Monday.
“I am happy for Kansas State,” Weber said. “This is one of the best environments in the country. It is great to be a part of.”