KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wins, they had plenty of. Just none of the signature variety, none that you could brag about in March. None that could be presented to the NCAA Tournament selection committee with a straight face.
That is, until now.
Kansas State 67, No. 8 Florida 61. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we present Exhibit A.
“I’ll be honest: I was scared watching film (of the Gators),” Wildcats coach Bruce Weber said, grinning, after leading the program to its first regular-season victory over a non-conference top-10 foe since 1981. “We stopped it a couple times (when) we showed them (Friday) night.
“They’re at Florida State, they’re up 40 points. You know, they’re playing Marquette, (it’s) 25. I called up (Wisconsin coach) Bo Ryan, he said, ‘We had no chance. It was (in the) 20s.’ So this was a nice step for our kids. They competed — a lot of positive things. Most importantly, we can relax and enjoy Christmas.”
For the Kansas State fans in full throat at Sprint Center — more than 16,000 strong — on Saturday night, it was the perfect gift, the most complete performance of Weber’s 11-game tenure.
The motion offense, more often than not, flowed. The Wildcats (9-2) were frenetic again on the boards, holding the Gators to 10 second-chance points and few opportunities to get more than one shot on a possession.
There were contributions everywhere, sprinkled up and down the roster. Overland Park native Will Spradling played the half of his life, draining three treys in the first 20 minutes, all of which kept the ‘Cats afloat. Martavious Irving added eight points off the bench, including two massive 3-pointers late. Shane Southwell drained a huge trey from the corner with 1:33 left in the tilt that put K-State up eight. Nino Williams snared a quiet seven rebounds in just 17 minutes.
And yet, the unsung hero of the night was senior big man Jordan Henriquez, who blocked five shots, grabbed six boards and netted nine points. The 6-foot-11 New York native drew arguably the ovation of the evening after draining, at one point, four consecutive free throws. He was just 5-for-9 from the stripe, but consider the context: Before Saturday, he had missed on 15 of his last 17 free-throw attempts.
Sometimes, it really is your night.
“This is a huge confidence-builder,” Henriquez said.
A resume-builder, too, one the Wildcats desperately needed for their collective psyche as much as anything else. K-State’s two previous tests against ranked foes — Michigan and Gonzaga — on neutral floors amounted to two beatdowns by an average of 15 points.
After last weekend’s 68-52 loss in Seattle to the Zags, many K-State fans weren’t shy about expressing their displeasure through Twitter and other social media. Deserved or not, Weber received a pretty good kicking.
“I don’t know if there’s anything to losing to Gonzaga in Seattle before 16,000 (people),” the coach said. “That’s a tough game, they’re really good. But the thing I was disappointed (with) was that we didn’t compete for the 40 minutes. That’s what I talked to (the players) about.”
Needless to say, despite their enthusiasm, many K-State faithful also headed into Kansas City’s downtown Power & Light district with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“You know, we let each other down the past couple of times we played against Top-25 teams,” said guard Rodney McGruder, who rallied from a slow start to finish with 13 points in Saturday’s win. “We didn’t want to have another meltdown like that, so we challenged one another to go out and compete for 40 minutes.”
The first five minutes of the second half have absolutely torpedoed the ‘Cats against quality dance partners. K-State was outscored 42-33 in the final 20 minutes vs. Michigan and 41-26 vs. Gonzaga.
That old gremlin popped up again Saturday as Florida came out of the break on a 12-3 run. The Gators cut the lead to 36-35 at the 16:15 mark, then tied it at 41-41 with 13:21 left.
During timeouts, Weber reminded his kids that they’d been there before, and asked them, in so many words, if they wanted to see lightning strike the same way three times. The message stuck. When it was 36-35, the Wildcats responded with a 3-pointer by Angel Rodriguez. After 41-all, it was a trey by Irving to open up another cushion.
“That was embarrassing,” Spradling said of the second-half slump vs. Gonzaga. “And we didn’t want to be embarrassed again.”
They also didn’t want to miss the last chance to stick a marquee win in their pockets — the kind that helps when on the postseason bubble — before the calendar turns to 2013. The next opportunity for the Wildcats to face a top-60 RPI team at home is Oklahoma State (RPI rank: 17) on Jan. 5. They’ll host No. 9 Kansas on Jan. 22, and the next road game vs. a top-60 RPI team is at Iowa State (60) on Jan. 26.
“This is a great win for our team, a good win for our staff (and) a great win for our league,” Weber said. “Our league had not had a lot of marquee wins. You get Kansas (over Ohio State on Saturday), you get Texas the other (day) against (North) Carolina, this win for us.
“Our opportunities are running out, and your RPI is going to get set as a league. Now you’re going to have to win. You’re not going to be able to take advantage of a high-RPI game when we get to the league.
“I think our coaches did a great job. We’re starting to understand. I have to challenge them a lot, and it takes a lot of energy, but I’m starting to figure that out, too — when I have to challenge them and when they can bring their own energy to the place.”
On Saturday, the Wildcats played with urgency, an almost perfect balance of rage and desperation. Against a team that came in allowing opponents to make just 30 percent of their 3-point attempts, K-State shot 41.2 percent (7-for-17) from beyond the arc. Against a Florida team that came in forcing foes to turn it over an average of 15.8 points per game, K-State gave it away just 10 times. Against a Florida team that allowed 10.7 more rebounds per game than the opposition, K-State won the battle of the boards 35-25.
“I’m not sure the light’s totally on,” Weber said, “but it’s flickering right now.”
And for the first time in weeks, it’s bright enough that the folks in the Little Apple can see Bracketville again, off in the distance. Waiting.