It took a while for Kansas State to get going under Bruce Weber, but the Wildcats are starting to hit their stride.
The No. 16 Wildcats won their eighth straight game on Saturday, defeating Oklahoma 69-60 at Bramlage Coliseum to stay undefeated in the Big 12 and set up a battle for first place against Kansas on Tuesday.
It will be one of the most anticipated Sunflower Showdowns in recent years, with both teams likely to be ranked in the top 15.
“If you’re a Top 25 team, you have got to have a swagger about yourself,” said senior wing Rodney McGruder, who led all scorers with 20 points. “I think we have a swagger about ourselves now. It feels great to be on an eight-game winning streak, but it doesn’t stop here.”
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K-State (15-2, 4-0) seems up for the challenge. It is playing some of its best basketball and handed Oklahoma (12-4, 3-1) its first league loss.
Normally, the Wildcats rely on McGruder to do most of the heavy lifting on offense, hope for someone else to contribute and try to win with defense. That formula has worked throughout the past month, but they took it to a higher level against the Sooners.
On top of McGruder hitting four three-pointers and leading the way after a slow start, Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez and Shane Southwell all came through with important shots.
Spradling made some momentum-shifting three-pointers on his way to 15 points, Southwell scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half while McGruder was struggling to find open space, and Rodriguez added 12 points.
“In our offense (on) any given night, anyone can have a good night,” Spradling said. “It really just lets anybody get the flow of it. Anybody can get hot. It was nice that we didn’t’ have to rely on that one person that was hot at the end of the game, because we had so many players that were playing well and shooting it well.”
The Wildcats have clearly come a long way since their early offensive struggles.
“Kansas State is very good, and when they shoot the ball like that, they are even better,” OU coach Lon Kruger said.
K-State’s defense has been solid the whole way. Oklahoma committed 16 turnovers, finishing with 59 points and none of its players scored more than 12.
The Sooners out-rebounded the Wildcats 39-25, but it wasn’t enough. The majority of Oklahoma’s points came off inbounds passes, set plays and second chances. K-State made everything else difficult and took advantage of Oklahoma’s mistakes by scoring 26 points off turnovers.
Kruger, who used to play and coach at K-State, thought that was too much to overcome.
“We didn’t take very good care of the ball, and that was entirely because of Kansas State. I thought their defense was outstanding,” Kruger said. “They did a terrific job and dictated. We hadn’t had that much trouble handling the ball on the season, but we did today.”
It didn’t look like K-State was going to be in control at the start. The Sooners took an early lead by focusing its defensive efforts on McGruder, daring everyone else to beat them. The plan worked to near perfection for more than 13 minutes. McGruder didn’t score his first points until a free throw with 6:49 remaining in the first half.
But then the Wildcats found a way to get him open, and Oklahoma’s chances of beating K-State for a third straight team quickly disappeared. In the span of four minutes, McGruder made back-to-back-to-back three-pointers for a 30-25 lead.
McGruder hopped up the court after his third straight three.
“I was saying, ‘Let’s go!’ ” McGruder said. “I was just excited. We took the lead. I saw the momentum change.”
It didn’t change back. K-State took a 35-27 halftime lead and pulled ahead by as many as 14 in the second half.
The Wildcats won decisively. The way they have been playing lately, that’s no surprise.
“We were just ready to play,” McGruder said. “You see guys, their mentalities have changed around the locker room. We are really focused. When everyone buys into what coach is preaching to us, I think we can be very good. That’s what everyone is doing.”