KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State proved something important during its 66-49 victory over Texas in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament.
It is resourceful.
That’s a quality every team wants in the postseason. Going up against opponents with little preparation and often no rest, things rarely go perfectly. And things were far from perfect for K-State on Thursday at the Sprint Center.
Texas surprised the Wildcats with a zone defense and jumped out to a 7-1 lead. K-State made 40 percent of its shots, starting forward Jordan Henriquez was limited to 10 minutes while battling back spasms and Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson both encountered foul trouble.
Despite all that, K-State won without a hint of a drama and advanced to Friday’s semifinals for the first time since 2010. It will play the winner of Oklahoma State and Baylor.
“Everybody knew that this could be me, Martavious (Irving) or Jordan’s last game at the Sprint Center or the Big 12 Tournament,” said senior wing Rodney McGruder, who led all scorers with 24 points. “Guys just laid everything on the line and went hard tonight.”
The Wildcats needed the extra effort. Outside of McGruder making 10 of 20 shots and sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez scoring 13 points, K-State’s normal contributors were quiet. Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and Henriquez combined for seven points. Irving and Gipson, the Wildcats’ top two bench players, combined for nine points.
K-State needed someone else to step up. That hasn’t been a problem for the Wildcats under first-year coach Bruce Weber. Someone always seems to deliver when they need it most.
This time it was D.J. Johnson.
The seldom-used freshman forward came off the bench to score a career-high eight points and grab seven rebounds.
“He was huge for us,” Weber said. “With Jordan’s back kind of struggling, we needed somebody with Thomas in foul trouble. And like we have all year, somebody stepped up. (Johnson) was definitely a difference-maker tonight.”
His biggest contribution came in the second half, when he threw down an emphatic put-back dunk to give the Wildcats a 51-38 lead. McGruder had just made a heavily contested three-pointer from the corner, and the large contingent of K-State fans in attendance rose to their feet. Then McGruder hit another three-pointer and converted a layup in transition to complete an 11-0 run that essentially clinched the game.
“That’s what he does every day at practice,” McGruder said of Johnson. “He tries to grab every rebound. He tries to dunk everything. You saw that put-back dunk he had. That was big-time.”
So was K-State’s defense.
Much has been made of the Longhorns’ improvement since star guard Myck Kabongo returned to the lineup after serving a 23-game suspension. Texas entered Thursday’s action 6-3 with Kabongo, including wins against Iowa State, Oklahoma and Baylor. Though K-State beat Texas by an average of 19 points in their regular-season meetings, the first came with Kabongo on the sidelines. The second came shortly after his return. This time, it seemed, Texas was ready to challenge K-State.
As it turned out, Kabongo’s presence didn’t matter. K-State smothered him from start to finish, holding him scoreless until he made two free throws in the final minute.
“We talked about staying in front of him and trying to make him take jump shots,” Irving said. “That’s easier than layups. When he gets going toward the basket, he is hard to stop. So we just wanted to keep him out of the lane. We did a good job of that.”
“We just played great team defense,” Spradling added. “Angel and Martavious did a great job of wearing him down and making him work.”
Combined with strong efforts from McGruder and Johnson, K-State was resourceful enough to advance. That’s all that matters this time of year.
“Kansas State is really good,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “I mean, really, really good. I love what they’re made up of. I love their makeup. I love the way they do a lot of things. They play extremely well together.”