By Steve Wieberg
Rodney McGruder scored 24 points and he and Kansas State stepped up their second-half defense in beating Texas 66-49, the Wildcats' first win in the Big 12 tournament in three years.
McGruder hit four three-pointers, two of them during an 11-0 run that finally gave K-State some breathing room midway through the second half.
Texas shot just 6-for-24 from the field in the second half and 34% on the night. The Longhorns' 15 turnovers led to 24 K-State points.
"I think they're the best team in the Big 12. I really do," Texas coach Rick Barnes said of the Wildcats. "… We'll see."
McGruder, a first-team all-conference selection, has been a constant this season. Sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez, who finished with 13 points, five assists and a single turnover Thursday night, has blossomed at the controls of coach Bruce Weber's motion offense. The depth of the Wildcats' cast of contributors was freshly underscored by 6-8, 250-pound freshman forward D.J. Johnson, who hit all four of his shots, scored eight points and pulled down seven rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench against Texas.
What had concerned Weber of late was his team's defense.
Check that off, too.
Texas was hanging around in the second half, trailing just 45-38 with a little more than 12 minutes left, then hit a Kansas State wall. The seventh-seeded Longhorns (16-17) scored just 11 more points. Guards Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis shot a combined 5-for-25 overall, Kabongo handing out seven assists from the point but committing five of the 'Horns' turnovers.
"We did a lot of 5-on-4. We call it frenzy," Weber said. "We've got to scramble and help, guard the next guy that's open. Because that's how they get you. He (Kabongo) gets by one guy; you've got to help. Somebody's got to rotate."
In a pivotal, almost six-minute stretch in the second half, Texas hit just one field goal.
"They're set up to win a tournament like this because they're tough. They're hard-nosed. They get their hands on a lot of balls," Barnes said of the Wildcats. "And you can't help them.
"We helped them a lot tonight."
Do-all senior Martavious Irving started K-State's decisive, 11-point run with a free throw. McGruder followed with a three-pointer that just beat the shot clock, then stripped Texas freshman Connor Lammert of the ball at midcourt. That led to a slammed put-back by Johnson, and McGruder came back with another three pointer and a fast-break drive.
With 8:48 left, the Wildcats were up 56-38.
"Tonight, I played with a sense of urgency," McGruder said. "I know this could have been my last game in the Sprint Center (in Kansas City). So I tried to go out there and give it my all, lay it all on the line."
That kind of effort lifted Kansas State (26-6) to its first share of a regular-season conference title – with Kansas – in 36 years.
The rival Jayhawks have won five of the past seven Big 12 tournaments. The Wildcats still are chasing their first.
Kansas State meets third-seeded Oklahoma State or No. 6 Baylor in Friday's 9 p.m. CT semifinal.