HONOLULU — The Kansas State basketball team's championship run in the Diamond Head Classic could be summed up with one play during a 77-60 victory over Long Beach State on Sunday at the Stan Sheriff Center.
Late in the first half, Thomas Gipson held the ball in the paint with his back to the basket and all kinds of options. The freshman could have turned around and attempted a jumper and he could have driven to the rim and tried to beat his defender for a highlight play. Instead, he flipped the ball to a cutting Jamar Samuels, who threw down an emphatic two-handed dunk.
Not only did the Wildcats (10-1) pull ahead by 13 points at the time, and maintain a double-digit advantage the rest of the way over the 49ers (7-6), it showed exactly the type of team they are becoming.
They value scoring as a group more than scoring as individuals, they enjoy making the extra pass and they adore playing high-energy basketball.
K-State found a way to mix all that together for three games in four days, and for that reason left Hawaii with the Christmas gift it wanted. The Wildcats claimed their first tournament championship since 2006 when it defeated New Mexico to win the Las Vegas Holiday Classic.
Bringing a trophy back to Manhattan was something Frank Martin and his players talked about all week leading up to these games. They wanted to accomplish something that hadn't recently been done at K-State, and they did. As a bonus, it may move into the Top 25 for the first time this week.
It was something everyone on the team could appreciate, because they all played a part.
On Sunday, Rodney McGruder did most of the heavy lifting. The junior forward made 10 of 11 shots from the field on his way to a game-high 28 points. He was strong from the opening tip, making all five of shots in the first half and taking a gutsy charge that helped the Wildcats build a big lead.
He stayed hot all night, and made several key shots in the second half as well. After beginning the tournament with two sub-par games by his standards, he guided the Wildcats when it mattered most.
But what made K-State so dynamic, especially in this tournament setting, was that it didn't rely on any single player to win.
While McGruder was quiet early in this tournament, freshman guard Angel Rodriguez had two big games and led K-State in scoring on back-to-back nights. On Sunday, he was held scoreless. It didn't matter.
Thanks to 17 points from Will Spradling, 11 points from Samuels, a high-pressure defensive effort that had Long Beach State exhausted by halftime, K-State still won rather easily.
It was exactly the scenario K-State was hoping for. It played its style of basketball to get there.