MANHATTAN — Rodney McGruder doesn’t have a special phrase to explain the way he played during Kansas State’s 73-67 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday.
Few basketball players do.
They normally defer to the two words coined long ago – “The Zone.” If that term is the gold standard for impressive games, McGruder had permission to use it repeatedly on his way out of Bramlage Coliseum.
Not only did he lead the No. 25 Wildcats to a win over the No. 22 Cowboys in the Big 12 opener for both teams, he did so with the hottest shooting performance of his career. After a disappointing first half in which he scored two points and K-State trailed 32-30, he couldn’t be stopped and finished with 28 points.
“We were down, so I just wanted to be a leader,” McGruder said. “I wanted to step up and just go out there and be aggressive for my team. I was more assertive and aggressive. I got going.”
The switch was immediate. McGruder made a jumper a little over a minute into the second half, then he hit a driving layup, a floater, a free throw, and a put-back to give K-State a 39-38 lead. A few plays later, he hit a pair of three-pointers that put K-State up 48-45.
The Wildcats (12-2, 1-0 Big 12) were on an 18-13 run, with McGruder scoring 15 points. It was a sign of things to come. He made 10 of 13 from the field and all five of his three-pointers in the second half. The 26-point outburst was the most for a K-State player since Denis Clemente scored 32 in the second half of a 2009 victory at Texas.
“He got us going, there is no doubt,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “It was important for him and for us … When you beat the real good teams, usually you have to have someone be special. And Rodney was special.”
He out-dueled Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, who scored 25 points, in an entertaining head-to-head battle. Smart, a freshman, was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country a year ago, and he proved why. But McGruder reminded the 12,528 in attendance why he was a preseason All Big 12 selection, too.
“It was one great player going off,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “He made some tough shots. He made a couple in the last seconds of the shot clock. He drove it and made some nice floaters. When you start going off like that, everyone starts playing him and he finds other people. Give him credit. It was more him scoring than us. He was making good shots.”
Added Weber: “They started losing (Rodney) and our guys did a better job of screening and finding him. Then he got in that zone. Him and Will (Spradling) put in the most time shooting. They are way up here on the chart. You just hope at some place it kicks in. Obviously it was good that it kicked in today for Rodney.”
The rest of the team fed off that and pulled away from the Cowboys (10-3, 0-1) in the closing moments.
All season, Weber has tried to infuse his offensive style with the toughness and defensive tenacity left over from the Frank Martin era. On Saturday, he succeeded.
There were doubts among fans when K-State lost badly to ranked opponents Michigan and Gonzaga, but those concerns are dissipating now that the Wildcats have beaten two teams. They also defeated No. 13 Florida at Sprint Center.
“To be top 25, starting conference play 1-0 and our only losses to top 10 teams, that’s not bad,” McGruder said. “I’m not saying it’s acceptable, but it’s not bad, either.”
This was arguably the Wildcats’ finest all-around effort, and it came at an ideal time, allowing K-State to start Big 12 play strong.
It challenged Oklahoma State on nearly every shot and outrebounded OSU 39-29. Perhaps its best defensive accomplishment was limiting the Cowboys to five offensive rebounds on an afternoon when they missed 29 of 49 shots.
Ford was unhappy with that stat afterward. Jordan Henriquez, Thomas Gipson, Nino Williams and McGruder made life hard for Oklahoma State inside, grabbing five or more rebounds apiece. Outside of Smart and Markel Brown, who scored 19 points, Oklahoma State struggled to get good looks.
On offense, the Wildcats scored 18 points on second-chance opportunities and surged ahead in the second half behind McGruder and Williams.
On any other night, Williams might have been the Wildcats’ star. He provided energy off the bench, never quitting on plays and tracking down loose balls that led to easy points, and finished with 17 points and five rebounds.
“He goes hard every play,” McGruder said. “You saw the putbacks and things he had in the second half. He is just reckless.”
They teamed up in the closing seconds for a play that defined the game. After holding Oklahoma State scoreless for more than 2 minutes to take a 71-65 lead, it was obvious the Wildcats were going to win. So when Le’Bryan Nash missed a three-pointer with 19 seconds to go and Spradling grabbed the rebound, he sent it ahead to McGruder who was heading toward the basket on the fastbreak.
He couldn’t convert a guarded layup that would have given him a 30-point game, but Williams was there to clean up the mess. He snatched the ball out of mid-air and threw down a dunk that brought the crowd to its feet and sent the Wildcats into their next game – Jan. 12 at West Virginia – riding high.
“We did it against a top 25 team,” McGruder said. “That was big for us. It was a great team effort.”