This was supposed to be a tricky game for Kansas State.
With Myck Kabongo in the starting lineup, Texas looked like a team capable of challenging the Wildcats at the Erwin Center. Throw in foul trouble and an early injury to Will Spradling, and it could have been considered a tossup.
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But behind yet another balanced effort and a brilliant display of shooting from both the outside and the free-throw line, K-State, 22-5 overall and 11-3 in the Big 12, pulled comfortably ahead in the second half on the way to an 81-69 victory and remained tied with Kansas for first place in the conference standings.
“They were much more aggressive than they were the first time up at our place,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I talked about being relentless and keep pushing them. I thought our kids did that.”
Senior guard Rodney McGruder pushed the hardest with 20 points and six rebounds, but he had all kinds of help. Angel Rodriguez made two three-pointers and scored 16 points, Shane Southwell sank three from beyond the arc and had 11 points, six assists and six rebounds, and Thomas Gipson added 10 points.
For the third straight game, at least four K-State players scored in double figures. And, for the third straight game, K-State won by at least 10 points. It is starting to develop a balanced attack.
Still, this was different than the Wildcats’ last two victories. They made nine of 18 three-pointers and 20 of 22 from the free-throw line.
Ever since Weber arrived at K-State, he has promised to help his players become better shooters. That dedication hasn’t always translated into impressive shooting percentages, but on Saturday the Wildcats rarely missed.
“That was real good,” Gipson said. “We haven’t shot free throws like that in a long time. I mean, we have been decent. But that was real good to go 20 for 22. The three-pointers, we are all good shooters and we work hard in the gym. They are supposed to fall. Some do and some don’t. Tonight they fell, and we are glad for that.”
Spradling and Rodriguez made the first three-pointers and helped give K-State an early 13-4 lead. Southwell made enough in the second half to help K-State build a 19-point advantage, all while the Wildcats were being whistled for 26 fouls. They also went most of the first half without Rodriguez, who sat with two fouls, and Spradling, who left the game after getting hit in the chest coming off a screen. Spradling returned in the second half and scored eight points.
That’s what good shooting can do.
“That was huge on the road,” Weber said. “We didn’t miss a free throw in the second half. We were 10 for 10. You’ve got to finish the game with free throws, and that was really, really important.”
The key to K-State’s success came from ball movement. Nineteen of its 26 field goals came off assists. Many of its three-point attempts were unguarded. That’s not an easy feat considering Texas defends the three-point line as well as anyone in the Big 12.
“You’ve got to give credit to them,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “They found the open man and made open shots.”
Texas, 12-15 and 4-10, could have made things more interesting with a good effort from the free-throw line, but it missed 11 of 22 in the first half and went into the locker room trailing 40-32 when K-State came up with a steal on the Longhorns’ final possession and Southwell made an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer.
Most of K-State’s roster was in foul trouble at that point, but it didn’t matter.
“Coach is just doing a tremendous job when he calls timeouts, just informing us how the refs are calling the game and keeping our composure,” McGruder said. “You know, he reminds us, ‘Don’t get those ticky-tack fouls.’ ”
When Rodriguez and Spradling started the second half, the Wildcats took control.
“You had good momentum,” Weber said, “and then we got off to a great start in the second half.”
Behind a game-high 24 points from Kabongo, who missed the first game between these teams while serving a 23-game suspension for violating NCAA rules, the Longhorns were more competitive than a month ago. But they weren’t good enough to seriously challenge the Wildcats.
If K-State continues playing this way, Texas Tech shouldn’t pose a threat in its next game on Monday at Bramlage Coliseum, either.
“We are trying to win a championship,” Rodriguez said. “We have to play at a high level, and we have so far. We still have a couple games, but if we keep doing what we do, we should be all right.”