By Steve Wieberg
Kansas State shared the Big 12's regular-season championship with Kansas, and now will meet the Jayhawks for the conference tournament title after beating Oklahoma State 68-57 in Friday night's semifinals.
Rodney McGruder scored 25 points, including the Wildcats' first nine of the second half as they pushed a five-point lead to a dozen to take control of the game. The senior guard also finished with nine rebounds and three assists.
A day after a physically and emotionally taxing win over Baylor, a tired Oklahoma State team shot just 30.5% from the field (18-for-59). Big 12 Player of the Year Marcus Smart, who led the Cowboys with 18 points, hit just one of his six second-half shots.
Watching OSU struggle to beat Baylor in the last of four tournament quarterfinal games a night earlier, K-State coach Bruce Weber said he and his staff anticipated that the short turnaround would make fatigue a factor against the Wildcats.
Oklahoma State battled for a half, then indeed seemed to wilt. McGruder started the second half with a dunk, then a layup, then an inside score. Less than a minute later, he hit a hanging jumper, was fouled and added a free throw that moved the Wildcats ahead 37-25. OSU couldn't mount a serious threat after that.
"We saw they were tired by the end of the first half," said Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez, who hit three three-pointers in the game and finished with 17 points, four assists and three steals. "The beauty of our team is we're deep and a lot of people can play for us and help us. And that's what we did. We rotated our (front) line and we got out in transition. And pretty much every time we went into transition, something positive happened."
Third-seeded Oklahoma State managed to trim the lead to six approaching the midpoint of the second half. But K-State's Shane Southwell hit a three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring, Rodriguez hit another a few minutes later and Thomas Gipson threw down a two-handed slam to make it a 13-point spread, 46-33.
OSU mustered just a single field goal in one six-minute stretch, then only one in a succeeding seven minutes.
"It's a bad feeling as a coach when you've got no offensive rhythm," Cowboys coach Travis Ford said. "We could feel it. We were trying everything … but we just couldn't get anything to work.
"We got 17 offensive rebounds. We were fighting out there; I thought we were. We may have been a step slow fighting and moving, but I thought our guys were trying to make things happen."
The Cowboys made just five of 21 three-point attempts. Sophomore Le'Bryan Nash, who was instrumental in the victory over Baylor, hit only two shots from the field and finished with 11 points.
At 24-8, OSU is nonetheless bound for next week's NCAA tournament. So is Kansas State (27-6), which could land an opening assignment in Kansas City if the Wildcats can land as high as a No. 4 seed.
They'd make a push with a win over Kansas. The Jayhawks are seeking their ninth Big 12 tournament title. K-State is seeking its first, reaching the championship game for only the second time – and the first in 2010, when it fell to KU.
The Wildcats get their third crack at Kansas in the 5 p.m. CT championship game. The Jayhawks won twice during the regular season, by four in Manhattan, then 83-62 in Lawrence to snap a three-game losing streak.