SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — It’s early in the season, but one thing UNC Charlotte head coach Alan Major wanted to see from his team entering its trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off was how tough it could be.
Through one game, he likes what he sees.
Mike Thorne had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Denzel Ingram added 12 points as UNC Charlotte held off a late second half charge and beat Kansas State 68-61 Thursday in the opening game of the three-day tournament.
“We talked before the game about how physical the game was going to be and the mantra and the thing we’ve been chatting about is toughness,” Major said. “I just thought the guys showed great toughness from beginning to end.”
Charlotte (3-1) led by as many as 13 points in the second half and won its second straight despite being held under 80 points for the first time this season.
“It definitely gives us confidence,” Ingram said. “Kansas State is a very good team and it’s going to look good down the road.”
Nigel Johnson led the Wildcats with 14 points, who had a two-game win streak snapped.
The Wildcats (2-2) led only once in the game, and struggled in the paint where they were outrebounded 46-34. It was the third time this season they have been beaten on the boards.
“We gotta fight on the boards,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “We gotta have five guys there. We know we’re a little undersized, so it’s gotta be team rebounding. We gotta be there.”
K-State also tied a season-high with 12 turnovers, but Johnson said Charlotte’s multiple-defensive looks were expected.
“We were ready for it, but in the heat of the game of course it’s a little different than when you’re practicing,” he said.
Charlotte had a clear advantage underneath with Thorn and Willie Clayton, but Weber said he liked the grit shown inside. D.J. Johnson played most of the second half with four fouls and was able to avoid picking up his fifth.
Still, the 49ers were able to connect on big shots down the stretch.
“They didn’t make many 3s, but when the made them it was big ones, kind of daggers,” Weber said.
As fouls mounted for Kansas State, Charlotte opened up a 52-39 lead midway through the second half.
The Wildcats were able to hang around, though, and used a 13-2 run to cut down to 54-52 with 5:12 to play.
49ers big man Willie Clayton fouled out during the run and Charlotte switched to a zone to stop the bleeding. The 49ers immediately got a stop and basket on the other end, but then lost Thorne for the day after he picked up his fifth foul.
They then got some breathing room again thanks to a 3-pointer by Ingram and layup by Terrence Williams that made it 61-53.
The Wildcats were then able to close the game out at the foul line, where they made 14 of 18 in the second half.
Kansas State hoped to get more of a contribution from forward Thomas Gipson, who entered the tournament having played only 19 minutes on the season after missing the Wildcats’ first two games with concussion-like symptoms.
He was saddled with foul trouble throughout, and fouled out with about 13 minutes to go in the game. He finished with just two points.
The game was tied at 30 after a fast first half that included its share of turnovers on both sides.
Charlotte forced the action early, opening up a 20-8 lead. The 49ers offense came mostly by Clayton, who had 10 first-half points and had his way in the paint.
K-State was stunted by some early foul trouble, with both Gipson and later Nino Williams forced to sit stretches with a pair of fouls.
The Wildcats defense picked up late in the half, though, and got back into the game with 13-2 spurt that included a pair of 3-pointers by Johnson.
The 49ers will play the winner of Northeastern and Georgetown Friday.