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 fourth-ranked 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,” forward Thomas 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. Wildcats 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 Wildcats could focus on. K-State will head to the Sprint Center this week with the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament and play either Texas or TCU in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Wildcats, who finished the regular season 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the Big 12, can expect a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament, too, and maybe even a spot in the opening-round games at Sprint. K-State 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. The Wildcats had won 10 of their last 11 and the Cowboys were all that stood in the way of K-State’s first conference championship in 36 years.
Instead, the Wildcats had to wait and watch.
For a while, K-State was in control. After falling behind 36-30 at halftime, the Wildcats reeled off a 20-5 run for a 50-41 lead with 13:09 to go.
But Oklahoma State, which finished 23-7 overall and 13-5 in the Big 12, owned the game from there, making 15 of their final 17 free throws. Le’Bryan Nash led the Cowboys with 24 points, making 10 of 12 shots. He was effective on the glass, dunked and led all scorers. Normally, K-State forward Jordan Henriquez would have challenged Nash inside, but Henriquez was limited to 10 minutes because of a back injury.
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. 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. Oklahoma State 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 two of three free throws, then Nash hit a layup and Oklahoma State never trailed again.
In his postgame comments, Weber was disappointed and players were in no mood to discuss a shared title. Even if it happened, they said, there would be no celebration.
Now K-State is making plans for one.
“It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not exactly the way we planned the day to go,” Weber said in a statement issued after the Wildcats returned to Manhattan. “However, to get a trophy and to get to hang a banner is special. K-State hadn’t done that in men’s basketball in 36 years and I’m happy that our team was able to end that streak.”
After Baylor pounded Kansas, the Wildcats’ moods quickly changed too.
“Wow, what a blessing,” Wildcats guard Omari Lawrence posted on Twitter.
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.”