WACO, Texas — The final moments of Kansas State’s 64-61 victory over Baylor were filled with confusion, but once the Wildcats got the ball to Rodney McGruder everything became clear.
With one second remaining in a tie game Saturday night, the senior guard broke free from defenders and caught an inbound pass from Angel Rodriguez behind the three-point line. It was a perfectly executed play, named “Quick,” that Wildcat coach Bruce Weber designed for McGruder last summer while playing exhibition games in Brazil. All that was left was for McGruder to take aim.
Without hesitation, he made a game-winning shot. His teammates poured onto the court to celebrate a win that kept K-State (24-5, 13-3 Big 12) tied with Kansas on top of the Big 12 standings with two games to play.
“As soon as he let it go I had my hands up,” said senior guard Martavious Irving, who scored 11 points. “You don’t leave Rodney open like that. He takes those shots all day by himself in the gym. I knew it was going in.”
So did everyone else on the K-State bench.
“Anybody on our team can step up and make a play, but if you ask me which guy would you want to give the ball to in that situation I would say Rodney,” said Rodriguez, who scored 13 points. “He has been here the longest. He is our go-to guy.”
Baylor (17-12, 8-8) knew that. And to the Bears’ credit, they prevented McGruder from touching the ball on what the crowd of 9,656 expected to be K-State’s final possession. On that play, Weber called timeout with 7.7 seconds remaining and drew up a play designed to get the ball to McGruder.
Instead, junior guard Shane Southwell attempted a guarded fadeaway jumper that missed the basket and bounced out of bounds with one second remaining.
“We didn’t get a very good look,” Weber said. “He was probably our last option.”
That’s when strangeness took over.
Bears coach Scott Drew called a timeout to set up a potential game-winning play that would start with reserve Jacob Neubert heaving a pass the length of the court. Ideally, Baylor center Isaiah Austin would catch the ball underneath the basket and make a layup before time expired.
Neubert threw the ball too high and too far, sending it out of bounds without touching anyone. So the ball went back to K-state, still with a second to go, underneath the Cats’ basket.
“Good fortune went our way,” Weber said. “The ball doesn’t hit anything and we get it with one second left.”
Weber yelled out “Quick.” Then McGruder approached Rodriguez with a message.
“I told Angel, ‘Look for me. See if you can find me,’” McGruder said. “He did a great job finding me and (Thomas) Gipson did a great job screening. Without him screening, I wouldn’t have gotten open.”
What resulted was an ideal scenario: McGruder all alone with the game on the line.
Still, there was some doubt. Though he led the Wildcats with 18 points, he was having an off night from the outside. He missed his first four attempts.
But he only needed to make one.
“When I released it,” McGruder said, “it felt good.”
He also made a clutch jumper with 1:03 remaining to give K-State a 61-59 lead.
It was a fitting end to a back-and-forth game that was close throughout. Neither team led by more than six points. Though that was to be expected with K-State fighting for a conference championship and Baylor trying to prove it belonged in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bears benefited from a loud crowd, dressed in neon green, that players thanked afterward. At one point in the second half, Baylor officials approached the student sections and requested that they stay off the court should the Bears win.
“It was a great game and a terrible ending for the Baylor Bears,” Drew said. “I thought the fans were outstanding … McGruder made big plays. Irving stepped up and made plays. We were one play short.”
The Wildcats persevered because they were the tougher team. After falling behind in the first half and trailing 34-33 at the break, they led for all but a few moments in the second half. Behind 18 points from Pierre Jackson, the Bears rallied to take a 56-54 lead with 3:57 to go and challenged the Wildcats until the buzzer sounded, but they couldn’t overcome McGruder.
In a game filled with turning points and decisive plays, he made the shot that mattered most.
“It just felt good to come out with the victory,” McGruder said. “That’s all that matters.”