HONOLULU — Angel Rodriguez can't decide whether he began his college career playing scared or shy. But he knows he was doing something wrong during his first few months with the Kansas State basketball team.
The freshman guard came to the Wildcats known as a fearless player who raised the energy level in every high school game he played in. Yet, when he was asked a week ago what had kept his playing time low and his contributions minimal at K-State, he said he was struggling to show maximum effort at all times the way Frank Martin demands.
He wasn't being himself.
That has changed — proved during a 78-70 victory over Texas-El Paso in the semifinal round of the Diamond Head Classic on Friday.
"I was never scared today," Rodriguez said. "I wasn't shy at all. I was just playing the game. I was playing happy."
The Wildcats can be thankful for that. Without Rodriguez coming through with his third straight strong game — he led all scorers with 16 points in 29 minutes against the Miners — K-State wouldn't be headed to this tournament's championship game at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. K-State will take on the winner of Friday's late game between Long Beach State and Auburn.
Without Rodriguez, the Wildcats (9-1) would have blown a 45-32 halftime lead, and spent the next two days searching for answers. That's how valuable he was against UTEP (5-6).
"Angel is only a freshman now," said senior forward Jamar Samuels, who scored 10 points to go with 12 rebounds, "and I'm scared to think what he could look like as a junior or a senior."
K-State hopes he looks like an older version of the player who led it on Friday. He gave the Wildcats a much-needed spark in the second half when the Miners made a serious run at derailing the Wildcats' tournament championship hopes.
When the Miners came all the way back to erase a 13-point halftime deficit and take a 59-57 lead on a driving basket from John Bohannon midway through the second half, Rodriguez demanded the ball, quickly took it up court and sank a three-pointer in transition the moment he was open.
That put K-State ahead 60-59, and it never trailed again.
It took confidence to take such a shot so early into a possession at a critical point in the game, but Rodriguez showed no fear.
"I was just feeling it," Rodriguez said. "In the game, when you're feeling it...."
"That's who he is," Martin said."... He's not scared. He wants to be in that moment. He enjoys that moment."
Behind his bold play, and a switch to a zone defense that thwarted UTEP the rest of the way, K-State reeled off a 14-1 run to take a 71-60 lead and held on for victory. The impressive run ended with a nifty pass from Rodriguez to Jordan Henriquez, which turned into an alley-oop dunk.
"Angel hit a big shot for us," Samuels said. "After that I was like, 'Yeah, let's get this run started.' "
Just like that, the game was in hand and the K-State fans in attendance began celebrating victory. The Wildcats made a statement with such a quick change in momentum.
"In a moment of duress, with freshmen on the court we didn't lose our minds," Martin said. "We ran offense, made good decisions and finally executed on defense."
K-State also once again got quality contributions from its bench. The Wildcats' reserves scored 42 points, with Jeremy Jones, Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz all finished with eight points. And a lineup of five backups lifted K-State in the first half. Will Spradling scored 11 points as a member of the starting lineup.
If Rodriguez can continue playing the way he did against UTEP, State's task in the championship game will become much easier. Unlike a week ago, when he was trying to figure out how to stay on the court, he doesn't think that will be a problem.
"I gained a little bit of confidence and every day in practice and in games it keeps growing and growing and growing," Rodriguez said. "Finally, today I felt like I was playing how I play. Before, I didn't have much confidence. I felt kind of stuck, scared to take a shot, scared to make a pass, scared to make a mistake. But as time went on my confidence grew a lot."