Rodney McGruder’s first trip to the Big 12 Tournament ended with one of the saddest locker-room scenes he has been a part of.
After beating Oklahoma State and Baylor to advance to the tournament’s championship game three years ago, Kansas State was eyeing a trophy. It was playing well at the time and went on to win a program-best 29 games, but it couldn’t beat Kansas in the final.
The Wildcats took the loss hard, shedding tears and showing frustration when it was over. McGruder was a freshman back then, but his emotions were no different than his senior teammates’. He was upset. So upset, that he still mentions that defeat as a learning moment in his career.
On Saturday evening, he can come full circle.
No. 11 K-State beat Oklahoma State 68-57 on Friday in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament at Sprint Center to advance to its first title game since its loss to Kansas in 2010.
McGruder was the main reason. On a night when neither team’s offense flowed the way it did during their regular-season meetings, McGruder couldn’t be stopped. The senior wing, playing like a man on a mission, scored a game-high 25 points.
“He gives us a lot of confidence when he plays that way,” Shane Southwell said. “He is the best player in the Big 12, if you ask me. Once he is going, the defense really starts trying to key in on him and that gets everyone else going. But he was going tonight. He didn’t really need us.”
McGruder made 8 of 14 shots while showing off the skills that made him an All-Big 12 selection. He drove to the basket for layups, he caught passes in mid-air for alley-oop dunks, he got the free-throw line, he sank mid-range jumpers, he hit a three-pointer and he grabbed nine rebounds.
Clearly, he wanted another shot at a tournament title. The Wildcats will take on the Jayhawks, which beat Iowa State on Friday.
“We have a shot, but I’ve been here before,” McGruder said. “You can’t get excited. You just have to keep your poise and go in there ready to play.”
“I still remember it three years ago,” added senior Jordan Henriquez. “I was cheering my guys on. It was one incredible year and I was just a freshman. I was able to spectate and be able to see what it looked like and how it felt to be out there playing for a Big 12 championship. Even though our guys fell short, we feel like we have another shot.”
Kansas swept K-State in the regular season, but both teams tied for the Big 12 championship with 14-4 league records. The Wildcats have said they didn’t enjoy sharing that trophy with their in-state rival, and have said winning a prize they can keep all to themselves supplied them with motivation this week.
Motivation didn’t seem to be a factor against the Cowboys, though. The Wildcats were simply the better team. Less than a week after losing 76-70 at Gallagher-Iba Arena, K-State responded with a strong defensive effort.
Oklahoma State forward Le’Bryan Nash, who abused K-State for 24 points in their last game, was held to 11. Marcus Smart was the only other Cowboys player to reach double figures, scoring 18 points.
The difference came inside from Henriquez. He was a non-factor in Stillwater while dealing with a back injury, but he played one of his best games in the rematch. He had eight points, 11 rebounds and changed several shots inside.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Jordan,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “He has struggled the last couple weeks.”
Angel Rodriguez, Martavious Irving and Will Spradling also provided strong defense on the perimeter, and Oklahoma State made 31 percent of its shots.
K-State could have won by more had it shot the ball well, but points were hard to come by outside of McGruder and Rodriguez with the team making 39 percent of its shots.
McGruder opened the second half with nine straight points for the Wildcats, giving them a 37-25 lead after a sluggish first half. And Rodriguez redeemed himself after a sub-par game against Oklahoma State by scoring 17 points. But no one else on the roster scored more than eight points.
In the end, that didn’t matter. K-State played strong defense for the second straight game and enjoyed a drama-free second half. The Wildcats pushed the ball more than usual, and wore out an Oklahoma State that barely held off Baylor in its first game.
“We could tell they were tired,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever we pushed the ball, good things happened.”
Now the Wildcats are headed back to the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament, where McGruder gets the shot at a trophy he’s been waiting three years for.