Unaware he would be celebrating a Big 12 championship Saturday night, Rodney McGruder looked for a quiet place on his way out of Gallagher-Iba Arena.
He wanted to put on a hooded sweatshirt and reflect on a 76-70 loss to Oklahoma State that ended Kansas State’s chances of winning an outright conference title. He was solemn and disappointed. Only a victory from underachieving Baylor over Kansas could give the Wildcats’ a share of the league crown. It seemed unlikely.
And yet, it happened. The Bears upset the Jayhawks 81-58 in the final Big 12 game of the regular season. The result: A Sunflower share, K-State’s first conference championship since 1977.
“Never thought I would say this,” Gipson wrote on his Twitter account Saturday night, “but we’re Big 12 champs. I love my team.”
But Gipson, McGruder and the Wildcats didn’t know that as they headed back to Manhattan. Wildcat coach Bruce Weber could tell McGruder was upset. So he offered advice and a hug.
“How are you holding up?” Weber asked.
“I’m good,” McGruder whispered.
“Stay positive,” Weber replied. “Finish strong.”
That’s all the No. 9 Wildcats could focus on. K-State will head to Kansas City’s Sprint Center this week with the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament to play the winner of Texas and TCU. It can expect a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament, too, maybe even in Kansas City. It has plenty left to play for. Those are all positives.
But at that moment they were hard to see.
A victory at Oklahoma State would have been memorable. Maybe even unforgettable. K-State (25-6, 14-4 Big 12) was trying to win its first conference championship in 36 years, and it was playing in a Big 12 title game, of sorts, to get it. The Wildcats had won 10 of their last 11. Oklahoma State (23-7, 13-5) was all that stood in the way of an achievement that would have set off celebrations back home.
Instead, the Wildcats had to wait and watch.
The Wildcats looked as if they would pull it off for a while. After falling behind 36-30 at halftime, they reeled off a 20-5 run to take control. Up 50-41 with 13:09 to go, all the Wildcats had to do was keep doing what they were doing.
But Oklahoma State owned the game from there, pulling ahead and making 15 of their final 17 free throws to clinch victory.
“It’s disappointing. Our guys have battled all year and we battled today,” Weber said. “Probably didn’t play our best basketball.… We made a great comeback and took a nice lead, but give credit to the Cowboys. They made enough plays. I don’t know if we got tired or tentative or what. We had opportunities. We just didn’t take advantage.”
The game slipped away for several reasons.
For starters, it had no answer for OSU forward Le’Bryan Nash. The inconsistent swingman made 10 of 12 shots and scored 24 points. He was effective on the glass, dunked and led all scorers. Normally, K-State forward Jordan Henriquez would have challenged him inside, but he was limited to 10 minutes because of a back injury.
That meant the Wildcats had to respond with offense of their own. McGruder led with 22 points and Thomas Gipson had 15 points and six rebounds, but few others could get going.
Sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez struggled most, missing 13 of 16 shots with four turnovers. Over the past few weeks, he has arguably been K-State’s best player, churning out assists and points while defenses focused on McGruder. But he regressed to his freshman form, challenging larger defenders with low-percentage shots in the paint and misfiring badly on his four attempts from the outside.
"They did a good job defensively. They really jammed him,” Weber said. “They locked into Rodney. We thought we didn’t have very good movement. You saw it in the second half against TCU and then today in the first half. They were very aggressive. They fought Rod on every screen, they bumped and jammed him. Then we didn’t get very much movement, so now Angel has the ball in his hands and he probably forced some things.
“He made some really good decisions to start the second half when we made the run. He got into the lane much more … He’s been very, very good. He just didn’t have his great game."
Still, K-State liked its chances with 4:45 remaining. That’s when McGruder converted an off-balance layup while being fouled by Brian Williams. K-State led 61-57 after the free throw.
Weber pumped his fist on the sideline and the K-State bench went wild.
"Nothing changed in my mind,” McGruder said. “I just thought that we had to stop their run and we had to punch back. That was all that was going through my head."
It turned out to be the beginning of the end. OSU freshman Marcus Smart hit a long jumper on the next possession, and officials stopped play as K-State took the ball up court to examine if it was a three-pointer. Rodriguez was then called for a charge against Smart.
Smart fell to the ground hard, but Weber accused him of flopping during his postgame radio interview. He remained furious about the call on the way to the team’s bus.
“I’m disappointed in the one play,” Weber said. “The big changing play was the out of bounds where they called the offensive foul. I bet if you went and watched it, it wasn’t an offensive foul. That changed the game and the momentum a lot.”
On the next possession, Gipson was called for another foul against Smart while he was attempting a three. Gipson argued his arm was upright at the time of the shot, and Smart jumped into him.
The officials saw things differently. Smart made 2 of 3 free throws, then Nash hit a layup and Oklahoma State never trailed again.
"I just had to get my mindset right. I just kept telling myself to keep attacking the rim,” Nash said. “I told my teammates, too, I told them to keep it going and keep taking it to the hole. That’s what we did. We kept attacking the rim, and it got us back in the game."
K-State stopped making shots, too. Its next field goal came with 18 seconds to go on desperation three from Will Spradling. By then, the game was lost.
That meant K-State’s hopes of a Big 12 championship rested with Baylor. Players were in no mood to discuss a shared a title after the loss. Even if it happened, they said, there would be no celebration.
Of course, when Baylor pounded Kansas, their moods quickly changed.
“Wow, what a blessing,” tweeted Cats guard Omari Lawrence.
It was a strange day. First came heartbreak. Then came renewed hope. Finally, there was joy.
"We’re just going to learn from it,” McGruder said after the game. “Just like any other loss, it’s either going to help you or hurt you. Hopefully it helps us, so we can learn from our mistakes and come back with a punch."