PITTSBURGH — The game had been over for several minutes and Kansas State’s locker room was packed, but nobody wanted to celebrate. Not yet, anyway. The Wildcats were a man down.
How could they enjoy a 70-64 victory over Southern Mississippi in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at Consol Energy Center until Rodney McGruder, the man most responsible for the win, was with them?
After his 30 points, four rebounds and four steals in a game that was anything but an offensive showcase, they wanted to show their appreciation by clapping, shouting and bouncing around with him.
So they waited until McGruder finished his on-court interview responsibilities, waved to fans and made the walk back to the locker room. When he opened the door, the place erupted.
“He is one of the top players in the country in terms of all-around game,” senior forward Victor Ojeleye said. “He rebounds it, chases guys around on defense and scores the ball. He really came up big for us.”
“He’s the main reason we won,” sophomore guard Will Spradling said.
“Praise Rodney,” senior forward Jamar Samuels said.
McGruder has been one of K-State’s most important players all season. He’s the scoring leader and has had plenty of big games. But he eclipsed all that on Thursday.
He made 11 of 16 shots, drained two three-pointers and got to the free-throw line eight times. He was unstoppable from mid-range and provided an offensive presence early, when it seemed like everyone else on the court was intimidated by the atmosphere.
While the rest of his team struggled to score, he scored 18 points in the first half and helped K-State take a 30-27 halftime lead.
“If he was in our conference, he’d be the MVP,” Southern Miss guard Angelo Johnson said. “Smart player, knocks his shots down, makes his free throws. Nice frame on him. I think he’s going to make it to the next level.”
He was so dominant that opposing fans began chanting the words “one-man team” every time he touched the ball.
The chant was meant as an insult to the Wildcats, but on this day they had no complaints. Behind McGruder, they advanced to the round of 32 for the third straight year. They will face No. 1-seed Syracuse on Saturday, which slipped past No. 16 North Carolina-Asheville on Thursday.
“I just wanted to be myself and go out there with confidence and relax,” McGruder said. “If you get too hyper, things can go wrong. I played in NCAA games before, so I was pretty relaxed and prepared. It is big-time to win in the NCAA Tournament, so I would say that is one of my best performances.”
K-State coach Frank Martin said watching McGruder gave him flashbacks to Jacob Pullen, the leading scorer in program history.
“When you see guys like him have the success he’s having individually, it makes you feel real proud, because that’s what it’s about,” Martin said. “You put in the time, you commit yourself to the people that believe in you, and you go get better. As a coach and a teammate, there’s a reason why we’re playing on Saturday, because of his personality, his work ethic, his toughness.”
K-State needed the entire package to get past Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles started slowly and couldn’t make many shots, but once they found their groove they gave the Wildcats all they could handle.
They rallied from nine down in the first half to take a 45-40 lead with 13:16 remaining. Kansas City product Neil Watson came off the bench to lead Southern Miss with 16 points, Lashay Page scored 15 and the Golden Eagles combined to make eight three-pointers.
With Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez in foul trouble on K-State’s front line, the Wildcats had a fight on their hands. But McGruder kept the team calm. He told everyone in the huddle they could answer with a run of their own just as easily.
Suddenly, everyone else got going. Henriquez (15 points, nine rebounds, six blocks) made a string of free throws. Angel Rodriguez, who scored 13 points in his first NCAA Tournament game, made a nifty layup to put K-State up 48-47 and then McGruder drained a three to give K-State some breathing room.
Then Rodriguez and freshman forward Thomas Gipson made free throws to clinch the game.
“We won that game as a unit,” McGruder said. “It was big-time of us as a team.”
However you want to classify it, the victory was what the Wildcats were looking for. It gave them confidence and proved they have an elite player. Maybe even an elite player capable of guiding them past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“Rodney did this for the first five or six Big 12 games when he averaged 27,” Samuels said. “You need five or six games to win the NCAA Championship so … you never know.”