The scene was set.
The Kansas State men’s basketball team had played 30 minutes of flawed basketball and was down 51-39 to Vermont in the first round of the NIT inside Bramlage Coliseum.
All looked lost until the Wildcats moved into a full court trap and press defense, which completely through the Catamounts into panic mode.
K-State caused numerous turnovers and made an incredible comeback to win the game 59-57 over the No. 7 seed Vermont.
“We had an 11 or 12-point lead, but then we lost our composure with some silly turnovers,” Catamount coach Mike Lonergan said. “I give Kansas State a lot of credit for their press and the traps they put on us. We haven’t seen that kind of pressure since (the first month of the season) and we didn’t handle it well.”
It all started with a Lance Harris free throw at the 9:42 mark to cut the lead to 51-40. Then Cartier Martin knocked down two free throws a minute later, and Akeem Wright. This senior-led comeback was momentarily stalled by a layup from Martin Klimes after Vermont broke the full-court press and the Wildcats failed to get back in time to stop an easy bucket.
Junior Blake Young came down the floor and made a baseline jumper with 6:29 to play to make the score 53-48, but the Catamounts again responded with another basket from Klimes.
Wright knocked down a jumper on K-State’s next possession, and Chris Holm made a bank shot for Vermont with 5:09 to play, giving his team a 57-50 lead in what proved to be its final basket.
K-State moved the ball around the perimeter during its next possession. Young received a pass in the corner after a nice drive and kick from junior David Hoskins. Young drilled the three with 4:44 left in the game, and the 8,596 Wildcat faithful were as loud as they had been all game long.
After a few shady offensive possessions that resulted in zero points for K-State, the Wildcats finally got a bucket from Hoskins when he stole the ball from a Catamount and dunked it with authority. K-State was down 57-55 with a little less than two minutes to play.
Shortly thereafter, Young was fouled and he converted both free throws to tie the game at 57 with 2:15 left in the game. The two teams exchanged poor possessions until Hoskins got another layup with 33 seconds remaining. He had a free throw opportunity that he missed, and then senior Jermaine Maybank missed the front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds remaining to give Vermont a chance to win the game.
Mike Trimboli, the Catamounts’ leading scorer, put up a contested three at the buzzer but the shot drilled off the backboard and into the hands of a Wildcat, giving them the 59-57 win.
“This time of year when you win it’s good because you get to keep playing,” K-State coach Bob Huggins said. “They’re a good team, and it’s nice to beat a good team when you don’t make a shot.”
Martin led all scorers with 19 despite a poor shooting performance from the field. He went 6-of-17 from the field, 4-of-14 from behind the 3-point line and 3-of-6 from the free throw line. He came into the game shooting a shade over 80 percent from the line on the season. His first nine shot attempts were 3’s.
Martin went 2-of-8 from the field in the second half, while missing all five of his 3-point attempts before fouling out of the game with 51 seconds left in the game.
“I had good shots that didn’t fall,” Martin said. “I started out shooting the ball pretty well, then I kinda started changing my shot a little in the second half. I wasn’t making as many and I got a little frustrated.”
K-State’s next leading scorer, Hoskins, wasn’t too much better. He went 6-for-13 from the field and only 1-for-5 from the free throw line to finish with 13 points. Hoskins also had five rebounds and three steals in 34 minutes.
“We had a lot of great looks that weren’t going in,” Hoskins said. “Free throws killed us. When your missing free throws, it starts messing with your confidence to shoot every other type of shot. I started off missing free throws and it kinda affected me.”
After the game Hoskins came back onto the court and took about 100 free throws to help him practice for the next game.
Wright had the best game of any Wildcat, as he scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds and was given credit for three steals even though he was the main reason for at least five more. He played the entire game, and Huggins had nothing but positive things to say about Wright during the entire postgame interview session.
“This guy here was fantastic. He’s without question the MVP of the game,” Huggins said. “Akeem was fantastic. Akeem was very, very good at both ends of the floor for us on a day when Cartier couldn’t make a shot, Dave couldn’t make a shot and Lance couldn’t make a shot. You know it’s nice that we can play and shoot it as poorly as we shot it and still be able to win.”
Harris only attempted three shots all game and finished with an unimpressive three points.
Trimboli came into the game averaging more than 16 points per game for Vermont, but he was held scoreless in the first half and finished with only five points on 2-of-14 shooting. Wright guarded him for the entire 38 minutes he was on the floor. He did have 11 assists, though.
Chris Holm had 10 points and 14 rebounds in 37 minutes. Martin Klimes was the leading scorer for Vermont with 16 on 8-of-11 shooting.
For the game, the Wildcats shot only 36.8 percent from the free throw line, easily their worst performance of the season.
They hit 41.8 percent of their shots to Vermont’s 42.9, and the Wildcats were outrebounded 37-33 to a Catamount squad that leads the nation in rebounding margin (+9.8).
K-State got its first postseason victory since a 115-77 victory over Fresno State in the 1994 NIT. The Wildcats have advanced into the Sweet 16 of its first postseason tournament since 1999, and will play Depaul Monday in Bramlage, with the gametime to be announced at a later date. The Blue Demons defeated Hofstra 83-71 Wednesday night.