MANHATTAN — What started out as an early New Year’s Eve celebration nearly turned into a catastrophe.
The Kansas State Wildcats saw a 21-point lead steadily disappear through the hourglass Saturday night, needing a steal with less than a second left to hold off George Mason, 59-58, at Bramlage Coliseum.
With the victory, K-State closed out 2018 with a 10-2 record heading into Wednesday’s 8 p.m. Big 12 opener against Texas. George Mason, which had the ball twice at the end with a chance to win, fell to 6-7.
Not until Kamau Stokes got his hand on an inbounds pass and deflected it to teammate Xavier Sneed as time expired could K-State exhale.
George Mason had pulled within a point with 44 seconds left when Javon Greene put back a miss by Justin Kier, then got the ball back at the 17-second mark after Cartier Diarra missed a corner jumper for K-State. The Wildcats appeared to be out of the woods after Kier missed a jumper with four seconds on the clock and Barry Brown rebounded, but Brown was called for a double-dribble at 1.2 seconds.
After each team called a timeout, and George Mason inbounded from the right sideline in frontcourt, Stokes came to the rescue, keeping the Patriots from getting off a last shot.
“A win’s a win, but there’s definitely some things we need to learn, especially from this game, going into the Big 12,” said Stokes, who also rode to the rescue offensively when Mason made its run, knocking down four second-half 3-pointers and leading the Wildcats with 20 points for the game. “Of course you don’t want to go into the Big 12 with a loss, so winning feels good, but there’s definitely things we’ve got to learn from.”
The Wildcats appeared to be on their way to a laugher after closing the first half with a 20-2 run and leading 36-16 at the break. They limited Mason to one field goal over the last nine minutes.
“I thought for 25 minutes we were really a good team,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “You hold them to 16 points, seven for 27 (from the field) at the half, one for 10 (from 3-point range).
“You’ve got to give them credit ... You think you’re going to break their spirit and we didn’t.”
K-State took its biggest lead, 44-23, on Brown’s rebound basket with 15:07 left, but that’s when Mason took off. Greg Calixte hit a free throw at the 14:49 mark that triggered a 12-2 run. After Stokes knocked down a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding, the Patriots reeled off eight more, cutting it to 49-43 on an Otis Livingston 3-pointer with 6:45 to play.
Two straight Stokes 3s got K-State back on track, but the Wildcats missed three of four free throws down the stretch and were 1 for 6 from the line in the half. They also turned the ball over three times in the last 2 1/2 minutes.
“The crazy thing is we were still a 10-point lead under that last TV timeout,” Weber said. “Now, just make a couple of plays, make a couple of stops, but they didn’t let down.
“We were very fortunate that Kam made some big shots when they were making their run.”
Stokes, who also rescued the Wildcats with a big second half in a 19-point comeback against Southern Miss, said he was ready to step up.
“I am definitely comfortable and my teammates believe in me to make those shots, so when I’m open it’s up to me to hit them,” he said.
In addition to Stokes, K-State got 13 points from Sneed — all in the second half — while Brown scored nine of his 12 after intermission.
Stokes became the third current Wildcat to reach 1,000 points for his career when he hit a free throw at the end of the first half.
For George Mason, Kier led the way with 15 points, followed by Greene with 12 and Jarred Reuter with 11.
K-State outrebounded the Patriots 39-31, led by Sneed with nine.