Senior Day at Bramlage Coliseum wasn’t the stroll most expected, but Rodney McGruder, Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez weren’t complaining.
Kansas State’s 79-68 victory over last-place TCU on Tuesday, which featured some tense moments in the second half, sent the No. 9 Wildcats into the final game of the regular season with a conference championship at stake.
Their three seniors, who have already won 99 games — more than any other class in program history — now have the chance to leave a more memorable mark. A win at Oklahoma State on Saturday will give K-State at least a share of its first league title since 1977. If Kansas loses its final game at Baylor, the Wildcats can win the Big 12 outright.
As enjoyable as Senior Day was — and it was a lot of fun with McGruder throwing down a vicious one-hand slam in the first half and all three seniors saying goodbye in front a full crowd that chanted, “Thank you seniors,” in the final minute — that is where their focus has always been.
“It’s more important,” said Irving, who had 15 points and five assists. “This town hasn’t had a championship since 1977, so it’s mostly just going in there and doing it for them and doing it for our team. We have worked really hard all season to try and bring a championship here.
“We are tired of KU dominating, basically. We want to make some changes around here, so that is what we work towards every day.”
K-State, 25-5 overall and 14-3 in the Big 12, can embrace that challenge because it took care of business against TCU, 10-20 and 1-16. With the Horned Frogs coming into the game on a seven-game losing streak, that wasn’t supposed to be difficult. And it didn’t seem like much of a test early. The Wildcats took a 42-27 halftime lead and looked like they were going to run away with things. All 17 of their field goals came off assists.
But TCU made things interesting in the second half behind guard Kyan Anderson, who scored a game-high 29 points. It got as close as four at 52-48 when Anderson hit a layup with 10:58 remaining and the crowd of 12,528 became silent and worried. TCU was on its way to scoring more points than it had in a conference game all season.
“That’s the best we’ve played in a long time,” Anderson said. “I felt like for the most part we were all locked in. At the end of the day, we played good, they played better.”
Indeed, K-State showed too much determination to lose control.
Angel Rodriguez, who scored a team-high 21 points, and Irving busted the zone defense TCU used to make a run at the beginning of the second half by making back-to-back threes.
The Horned Frogs answered with five straight points, but Thomas Gipson hit back-to-back shots and McGruder hit a driving layup to put K-State up by 11.
“They’re balanced, they’re good,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said. “What makes them good is they are real efficient. No one is concerned about scoring.”
K-State never pulled away to the point where the senior class could play to the crowd, but it maintained a moderate lead from there. Wildcats coach Bruce Weber called a timeout in the final minute to let McGruder, Irving and Henriquez leave to a standing ovation.
When the game was over, they each addressed the crowd.
Henriquez said he will miss “The Octagon of Doom.” McGruder said there was no better place to call home. Irving danced at midcourt. They were reflecting, but it was clear they all wanted to win a few more games before their careers are over.
“I was just excited that fans came out and supported us,” McGruder said. “I did have a lot of emotions going into the game. It was the last time I will be in Bramlage. … I’m just going to cherish every moment that occurred here and just move on. You’ve got to get over it and get ready for March. March is big.”
A victory on Saturday would make it huge.
“We have talked about championships since the start of the year, since we first got here last April in our first workouts,” Weber said. “We are trying to win a championship. That’s why you do it. … They have all left a legacy. That would be a special legacy for them to leave. There is still more to do.”