As the final seconds ticked away in Kansas State’s 78-68 victory over No. 3 Missouri on Tuesday night, Jamar Samuels had a choice.
The senior forward was unguarded, nothing standing between him and the basket. He could go for a dunk that would add an exclamation point to the Wildcats’ best victory of the season. Or he could dribble away, pass and wait for a Missouri foul.
“I wanted to (dunk), just because it’s ESPN,” Samuels said, a big grin on his face. “But I’m like, ‘Nah.’ We have more class, so I’m going to pull the ball out and just burn clock.”
That choice summed up K-State’s victory. The Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament resume was good enough already for most. They left Mizzou Arena as one of college basketball’s hottest teams.
Combined with the 57-56 win at Baylor on Saturday, K-State (19-8, 8-7 Big 12) has defeated top-10 teams in consecutive road games. Add last month’s lopsided win over Missouri in Manhattan, and the Wildcats are now playing for NCAA seeding.
They’re also playing for things such as revenge against an opponent like the Tigers, who have rubbed Wildcats players the wrong way ever since Laurence Bowers finished off an already-decided victory against K-State with a breakaway dunk here two years ago.
Samuels decided to show mercy, celebrating after the final horn.
“It felt good because usually we come down here and get our heads beaten in,” Samuels said. “But tonight we played as a team and got the win.”
It was K-State’s first victory at Mizzou Arena since 2007, and the first for coach Frank Martin.
Though he was more subdued with his celebration than Samuels, Martin’s emotions were just as high.
“This is a hell of a win,” he said.
And not just because of postseason implications and the teams’ history. K-State, perhaps for the first time since downing Missouri (25-3, 12-3) at the beginning of the conference season, played to its full potential.
It shot 50 percent in the first half and scored 40 points for a 10-point halftime lead. The Wildcats kept running in the second half to go ahead by 16 — shooting 58.3 percent — and then survived Missouri’s biggest push with clutch baskets late.
“This team was capable of doing that from the beginning of the season,” Samuels said. “We had our bumps in the road, but I think we are back to it.”
Missouri started making shots itself in transition and pulled to as close as 63-60 with 6:33 remaining and 70-66 with 2:21 to go.
The Tigers, who hadn’t lost at home, were in good shape to make a final push. K-State had been in this position before and allowed things to slip away. It held double-digit leads in the second half at Iowa State and Texas and didn’t win.
But it closed out a tough game at Baylor, and built on that against the Tigers.
“The win at Baylor gave us the focus to finish that game off, where before we hadn’t done it,” Martin said. “We didn’t do it at Iowa State. We didn’t do it at Texas. Against Kansas we had a lead in the second half and just couldn’t make enough plays on either end of the floor.”
Not a problem this time. Angel Rodriguez found Jordan Henriquez for an alley-oop dunk, then Henriquez made two free throws to put K-State ahead 74-66.
Before that, Rodney McGruder (24 points) made several important shots, including a three-pointer and a jumper to put K-State ahead 68-62.
“Those are two big-time plays by a big-time kid in a moment where our team needed somebody to go do it,” Martin said. “And he did it.”
“I just wanted the ball,” McGruder said. “I was feeling it.”
Several of his teammates were finding success, too. Thomas Gipson made 6 of 7 shots on his way to 13 points. Samuels added nine points and 11 rebounds.
It was a balanced effort that had everyone pitching in.
“It had to be, because Missouri is real good,” Martin said. “We didn’t need to be special. We just needed to be solid and play as a unit, which we did.”
Missouri fell a half-game behind Kansas in the Big 12 heading into KU’s game at Texas A&M tonight. Michael Dixon led MU with 21 points and Marcus Denmon scored 19. But Missouri shot 38.3 percent
“Their physicality just kind of got to us,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Our guys competed hard. We fought, but you’ve got to give them credit in terms of the game and the way it was played tonight. It was to their advantage.”
K-State will try to keep it going against Iowa State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats might not be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives anymore, but victories mean a better seed.
“This was a real good win,” Gipson said. “Baylor was a real good win. We just need to continue moving forward. This team is growing on and off the court and maturing. We just need to keep moving forward and not take any steps back.”