Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber faced a predicament while trying to close out a victory at Vanderbilt on Sunday.
Makol Mawien, the team’s starting center, was not playing well. Mawdo Sallah, his primary backup, was in foul trouble. And the only other option down was Levi Stockard, a freshman playing in his first college road game.
What to do?
Weber rolled the dice with Stockard, and the gamble paid off. Stockard looked nothing like a newbie in the final moments against the Commodores. He made several clutch plays for the Wildcats on his way to career-high seven points. None were bigger than the two free throws he made to give K-State an 82-79 lead with 24 seconds remaining.
“Levi knows what is going on,” Weber said afterward. “He really does. He understands the game. He is very smart. He knows he has to get a little better physically and that will come, but when we call something he knows it. He tells our older guys sometimes where they should be. He has got a great feel of the game.”
Stockard smiled as he listened to his coach say those words. It’s been a challenging year for the 6-foot-8 St. Louis freshman. His basketball knowledge hasn’t translated into much playing time, and he has been foul prone.
But he has flashed skill in limited minutes. And he isn’t afraid of the big stage.
“I just had to be confident in myself,” Stockard said. “I have been in that situation lots of times in high school. I just had to be confident in myself, go through my routine and make plays. I was glad I made the free throws, because I really wanted to win that game.”
Stockard might see his minutes increase, starting Tuesday when K-State returns to the court against South Carolina Upstate at Bramlage Coliseum.
Though Makol Mawien has started every game for the Wildcats, he has been far from impressive.
Weber actually singled him out for playing poorly against Vanderbilt, scoring four points and grabbing one rebound in 16 minutes.
“Mak struggled,” Weber said. “He wasn’t very strong. He didn’t play strong. Mawdo was OK, I thought, but he got in foul trouble. We gave Levi the look and he came through for us. It was nice.”
If Stockard goes on to have a strong career as a K-State basketball player, his clutch play against Vanderbilt will be remembered as his first big moment.
“I am still trying to figure everything out,” Stockard said, “but I think this game was a big step for me.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett