After making a contested three-pointer that gave his team a comfortable second-half lead, Rodney McGruder strutted upcourt and pointed his right index finger high into the air.
It was a sign of things to come.
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The No. 13 Wildcats defeated Iowa State 79-70 on Saturday, taking over sole possession of first place in the Big 12.
It’s been a long time since K-State, 19-4 overall and 8-2 in the Big 12, was alone atop a conference race. It hasn’t won a league championship since 1977 and has finished second once since 1988. But players are proudly thinking bigger.
“It just feels good,” said McGruder, who scored 22 points. “We were up and we work hard. When things are going our way and we’re feeling good about things, why not celebrate?”
A four-game winning streak combined with three straight losses from Kansas, which fell at Oklahoma earlier in the day, have the Wildcats one game up on both the Jayhawks and Oklahoma State.
But the journey is hardly over. In many ways, their season is at a crossroads. They will get the chance to pad their lead Monday night at Kansas, and may be in the top 10 by then. But a loss at Allen Fieldhouse, where they last won in 2006, would make the standings tight again.
“It’s not the end of the Big 12,” McGruder said, “so you can’t really think about that. You just have to go out and play every night, because now we have the target on (our) back that we are in first place — guys want that spot. You just have to go out every night and compete.”
It wasn’t an easy game by any means, with Iowa State, 16-7, 6-4, making 12 three-pointers and fighting back until the final few minutes. K-State led 11-2 early but trailed 26-19 midway through the first half. It went into the half up 33-32, but didn’t take control until Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez got going midway through the second half.
Rodriguez scored 20 points off driving layups and a three-pointer. Gipson had his most dominant game inside, outmuscling defenders for 16 points and seven rebounds.
“I’ve just been playing hard and having the right mentality whether I’m starting or coming off the bench,” Gipson said. “I just want to come in and make an impact.”
It was a far cry from last month’s game at Iowa State, when the Cyclones were significantly stronger inside and Will Clyburn went wild with 24 points and 10 rebounds. This time, Clyburn was held to six points and two rebounds, losing five turnovers. The rebounding battle was practically even.
“We did a good job on Clyburn,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “He is probably playing as good as anybody in our league, and our league has a lot of talented players. We didn’t let him get going.”
In their first meeting, Iowa State feasted on second-chance points. In the rematch, K-State had 20 points off offensive rebounds. Iowa State scored 10.
“How bad do you really want it?” Weber said. “Do you want to compete for a title? Those are the plays you have to make.”
The Wildcats could tell they were in for a big night when they started hot behind McGruder, who had five assists and three rebounds. Unlike previous games, in which he battled foul trouble, he was active from the get-go.
When he made a three-pointer to put K-State up 61-52 with 11:11 remaining, the Wildcats had all the momentum they needed. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg called timeout, McGruder celebrated by letting everyone know K-State was heading to the top of the conference standings and the crowd went wild.
Iowa State mounted a brief comeback behind Korie Lucious, who scored 16 points, and Tyrus McGee, who had 15, but the game ended with K-State dribbling out the clock and the student section chanting, “Beat KU.”
“That is not a good team, that is a great team,” Hoiberg said. “They are well coached, they have veteran players and they are very difficult to defend because all of their weapons out there, and they exposed us on some things.”
Just like a first-place team should.