MANHATTAN — For Rodney McGruder, the best part about Kansas State’s 84-80 victory over Texas on Wednesday at Bramlage Coliseum was that he could finally walk away from a game with a smile on his face.
That’s not something he’s been able to do lately. Even after two monster performances last week in which he scored 30 points against Baylor and produced 19 points and 10 rebounds against Oklahoma, he had nothing positive to say because the Wildcats lost both games.
He got the total package against the Longhorns. The junior forward not only led all scorers with a career-high 33 points by making four three-pointers and 11 of 17 shots from the field, he also snared eight rebounds and led the Wildcats to a much-needed victory.
“It means a lot to get a career high and then come out with a victory,” McGruder said. “It doesn’t mean anything if we would have lost this game. I want to win more than anything.”
No. 25 K-State (13-4 overall, 2-3 Big 12) was in a tough spot after starting league play with three losses in two weeks. If it wanted to start climbing back up the conference standings, now was the time to do it. Texas (12-6, 2-3) has plenty of potential with the Big 12’s leading scorer J’Covan Brown running its offense, but with more freshmen than normal in rotation it is down from past seasons under coach Rick Barnes.
At home, this is the type of game the best teams in the Big 12 win.
The Longhorns posed a challenge to the Wildcats, used a 19-2 run to rally from an early deficit and take a 40-38 lead just before halftime and pushed K-State until the final buzzer behind a balanced scoring effort that featured four players finishing in double figures and Brown scoring 22.
But K-State proved to be too tough with a lively crowd behind it and McGruder on top of his game. He carried the offensive load most of the way by hurting Texas with his mid-range game and getting to the free-throw line 10 times.
“When he was getting in the paint he was finishing everything,” said Will Spradling, who scored 11 points.
Added coach Frank Martin: “I don’t know if he can keep up the pace he’s been at since Big 12 play began … but I’m ecstatic for him. I can tell you in my 27 years of basketball he’s as good a kid as I’ve ever been around.”
Thomas Gipson, Jamar Samuels and Spradling – who each scored 11 or more points – played well too, by making some key baskets late to maintain the lead.
“We let them deflate our defense too much working inside the three-point line,” Barnes said.
Early on, it didn’t look like the Wildcats would need to sweat this one out. Unlike a disappointing loss at Oklahoma, K-State came out with energy and looked sharp from the get-go.
McGruder scored a layup quickly after the opening tip, and when Martavious Irving made a driving layup with close to 8 minutes remaining in the first half, K-State led 36-21. It seemed like it would extend its winning streak over the Longhorns to three without any drama.
But Texas answered right back with 11 straight points and kept things close the rest of the way.
So close, that it almost stole the game late, when K-State missed five of six free throws in the final minute and Texas closed to within a point with 20.3 seconds remaining. But Spradling made a free throw and then the Wildcats came up with a defensive stop.
As Texas tried to tie the game or take the lead, Irving came up with a steal at midcourt and passed the ball up court, where he fittingly found McGruder all alone on a fast break.
With the crowd of 12,528 on its feet, he threw down an emphatic dunk to clinch the game.
At that moment, nothing could stop him from smiling.