MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) – Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill felt like this was a group that could take a step for his program. With all five starters returning, he felt it was a group to reverse a two-year trend of losing seasons.
Derrick Barden had 16 points and 17 rebounds as Northern Colorado stunned Kansas State 60-58 in Friday night’s season opener.
The Bears only went 3-for-8 from the free throw line in the game’s last 52 seconds, but an equally sour performance from the Wildcats gave them the edge.
“I’m very proud of our team because they couldn’t have played much worse in the first 10 minutes,” Hill said. “But I really think they showed what they were made of over the last 30.”
Wesley Iwundu had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and D.J. Johnson had 12 points and 9 rebounds for the Wildcats.
The last opening loss for the Wildcats came Nov. 23, 2002 against BYU and it was the first season opening loss at home in nearly 20 years. The loss also knocked out a streak of 47 consecutive non-conference home wins.
“A lot of guys were pretty down about it,” forward D.J. Johnson said of the locker room mood. “There is still a lot of positive coming from the coaches encouraging us to get back at it. Especially for when we get back to practice on Monday.”
Having lost Rodney McGruder to graduation and Angel Rodriguez to a postseason transfer, the defending Big 12 regular season champions were in need of quick answers.
The ownership fell on the shoulders of guards Shane Southwell and Will Spradling. They finished 4-of-22 from the field including a 2-of-12 from 3-point range.
“Shane and Will tried to make plays on their own,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “They need to let the game come and move the basketball. Part of it is that the young guys don’t know what’s going on and part of it is we don’t have enough stuff in.”
It was a rough start for the Wildcats as they went 1-for-6 from the free throw line through the first 1:32 of the contest.
The Wildcats built a 29-17 edge with 2:17 left in the first half, but a rebounding edge kept the Bears in it despite the double-digit deficit. They went scoreless to end the half, but still held a five-point margin at the break.
Wesley Iwundu’s 10 first half points out-shadowed a poor shooting performance from Kansas State in the first half. The Wildcats shot 31 percent on 11-of-32 shooting from the field.
Free throw shooting was a struggle for the Wildcats as they finished 16-of-33 from the charity stripe. Kansas State was 2-of-19 from behind the 3-point line.
“I hope it’s not that we’re bad shooters,” Weber said of his team’s offensive struggles. “Just tightness. It was the first game for a lot of guys.”
The second half opened with a bang for the Bears as they closed the margin to 34-33 with a Tate Unruh 3-pointer with 15:42 left in the game.
The Wildcats answered with a 3-pointer of their own, but their 37-33 lead quickly diminished. Three straight baskets gave the Bears a firm hold on the momentum with 13:13 left.
The Bears shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and held a 34-30 edge on second chance points.
“We were the fifth-youngest team in the country two years ago, and this group has really started to mature,” Hill said. “They take on a personality that is necessary to do something like this.”
The Wildcats were also without the services of forward Thomas Gipson. After being kept out of the gym in last Friday night’s exhibition win, he was in the building but didn’t see the floor.
The Bears beat the Wildcats on the boards 49-40. The margin included 13 offensive rebounds for the Bears.
“We have always been a good rebounding team,” Hill said. “I think we have been one or two in the Big Sky since I have been there. We have never been the biggest team by any stretch.”
Barden’s 17 rebounds exceeded a previous career high of 15. The senior exceeded 10 rebounds 11 times last season and the season opening performance opens up many possibilities for the Bears moving forward.
Barden wasn’t fazed by the Big 12 competition, either. The senior believes it’s just the beginning for the group.
“It meant a lot,” Barden said of the win. “It gave us confidence. Coach said it was not going to be easy, like in scrimmages. We had a few turnovers in the first half, and in the second half we came out and punched them in the face.”
The Bears were picked to finish fourth in the preseason Big Sky rankings. Experience showed against the Wildcats, but Hill said his team can grow from the program defining victory.
“We showed that we have not done a lot with our offense,” Hill said. “I have been coaching this team for the last two years on committing to being a great defensive team. For them to come today and hold Kansas State to 33 percent in their own gym is what I am most proud of.”
– By ADAM SUDERMAN, Associated Press
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