When Angel Rodriguez committed to Kansas State, he did so because of Frank Martin.
He liked the way they grew up in the same area of Miami and shared Latin roots. He liked Martin’s tough coaching style and the way he developed young point guards at K-State.
It was easy to see why Rodriguez wanted to play for Martin following K-State’s wild 57-56 victory over No. 9 Baylor on Saturday. The bond between player and coach was on full display.
Rodriguez played one of his best game with 15 points, six assists and four steals. He attacked the Bears’ zone defense and created open shots for himself and others while defending Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson.
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The Wildcats could not have beaten the Bears without him. But Rodriguez could not have played as well without his coach.
Five days earlier, Rodriguez played so poorly in a loss to Kansas that he described it as “the worst game of my life. Not just my college career, my whole entire life.”
He was low on confidence, but Martin sat down with Rodriguez before Saturday’s game and told him to stay positive, to keep battling and to realize the team had confidence in him.
So even when Rodriguez turned the ball over and allowed Jackson to slip past him for an easy layup in the opening moments, he stayed positive and came through with a memorable performance.
“I always wanted to play for somebody that communicates with me, especially because I am the point guard,” Rodriguez said. “We need to have a good connection. The position I was in, I was kind of frustrated. He sat me down and told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be OK. Stay positive.’ I told him, ‘I needed to hear that,’ especially from him, because I’m playing for him. He’s my coach.”
Sitting at his right shoulder, Martin smiled.
“He was great,” Martin said. “He battled and battled and battled.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew noticed.
“When we went up there he wasn’t really involved,” Drew said, referring to a 75-73 win at Bramlage Coliseum last month. “He finished today with 15, six and four steals, and I thought really played a good game on the road for them and did a tremendous job.”
K-State (18-8, 7-7 Big 12) needed him. Coming into the weekend, the Wildcats were living on the NCAA Tournament bubble with a conference record below .500. A road win over a top 10 team will greatly increase their chances of reaching a third straight NCAA Tournament.
But this victory meant more than that. It also gave the Wildcats confidence they can close out the season strong and enter March Madness with a good seed.
“I’m not too worried about that now,” K-State’s Rodney McGruder said. “I’m just trying to finish out the season out the right way, and we’ll see where our bid is in the NCAA Tournament after that.”
K-State took leads against Iowa State, Texas and Kansas in the past three weeks, but lost all three. It developed a bad habit of letting games slip away late. Maybe beating Baylor can serve as a breakthrough moment of sorts.
“It always feels good to win, especially when we’ve lost a couple games,” Rodriguez said. “Coming into their building and winning this game after all the losses we’ve had feels great.”
The Wildcats had to work for it. Baylor jumped out to a 20-11 midway through the first half, and probably should have been up by more. Baylor’s sloppy play on offense led to 18 turnovers and an inability to pull away.
But when K-State had its opening, it took advantage. Behind McGruder, who scored 15 points, Jamar Samuels, Jordan Henriquez and Rodriguez, the Wildcats closed the first half on a nice run and took a 32-28 lead on a deep three-pointer by Samuels at the buzzer.
Behind Jackson, who scored nine points and dished out seven assists, and Quincy Acy, who scored 14 points, Baylor quickly took a three-point lead in the second half.
It wasn’t going to let K-State pull away. Even when the Wildcats took a 55-51 lead with 3:39 remaining on a three-pointer from McGruder, Baylor fought back even after top big man Perry Jones fouled out. The Bears pulled ahead 56-55 on a three from Jackson with 2:06 to go.
But Rodriguez made sure K-State would win by finding Henriquez with a lob pass that he turned into a dunk with 1:55 remaining. He helped the Wildcats take the final lead, and then defended Jackson well enough that Baylor couldn’t score in the final moments.
The Bears had several cracks at a go-ahead basket, including an off-balance shot near the basket from Quincy Miller with two seconds remaining, following a traveling call against Rodriguez that negated a breakaway layup with 13 seconds left. Henriquez deflected Miller’s shot and the game ended with the ball bouncing harmlessly out of bounds.
Just like that, K-State put the finishing touches on a badly needed win.
It was especially satisfying to Rodriguez. Martin put his trust in him, and he came through.
“He tried his heart out,” Martin said. “He has grown as a kid. He has grown as a player.”