Cats continue to ride McGruder’s hot hand

By Joshua Kinder

The last time Rodney McGruder scored 30 points, he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.

Kansas State had just allowed a lead to slip away late, resulting in a loss at home to Baylor — despite McGruder’s career-high 30 points.

On Wednesday, it was a much different story for the Wildcats’ guard, as McGruder set the tone early with a trio of 3-pointers and finished with a new career-high 33 points to lead No. 25 K-State past Texas, 84-80, at Bramlage Coliseum.

“It means a lot to get a career high, and it means a lot to do it in a victory,” said McGruder, who made 11-of-17 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds in the Wildcats’ third straight win over the Longhorns. “It wouldn’t have meant anything if we would have lost this game because I just want to win more than anything.”

And that the Wildcats did, with McGruder delivering the game’s final blow, a runaway thunderous two-handed dunk off a steal from Martavious Irving with 8 seconds to play.

“I was taking out my frustration because I had just missed two free throws, so I was angry about that,” McGruder said.

Missing a pair of free throws inside the final 30 seconds was about the only thing McGruder did wrong on Wednesday against Texas (12-6, 2-3), as he continues to be the hottest player in the Big 12 this season.

The 6-foot-4 junior from Washington, D.C. is averaging a league-best 23.4 points per game in Big 12 games, including two 30-point games in his last three outings.

K-State coach Frank Martin, who is now 4-2 against Texas, said if there’s one thing he’s not worried about right now, it’s the play of McGruder, as the Wildcats bounced back after a pair of losses last week to Baylor and Oklahoma.

“I’ve told you guys, I’m worried about inflation and I’m worried about taxes, but I am not worried about Rodney McGruder,” he said. “I am ecstatic for him. In the first half, when we ran our offense, we were aggressive, and we looked for open shots and opportunities for Rodney.”

Much of December was a challenge for McGruder, who failed to reach double figures four times, scoring seven points against George Washington and Virginia Tech, just two points against Alabama and then four points against UTEP in the first game of the Hawaii tournament.

But on Christmas Day, McGruder suddenly found his groove, as he poured in 28 points to lead the Wildcats (13-4, 2-3) past Long Beach State in the final game in Hawaii.

Ever since, he’s had one of the hottest hands in the country, scoring 14 and 15 points against Howard and Kansas, respectively, and then following those performances with 20 points against Missouri, 30 against Baylor, 19 on Saturday at Oklahoma and then his biggest night so far against the Longhorns.

“I don’t know if he can keep up the pace that he’s been at since the Hawaii tournament, but I am just ecstatic for him,” Martin said. “I can tell you in my 27 years that I have been involved in basketball, he is the best kid I have been around. He cares as much as anybody as I have been around. I am happy for his individual success, but I am happier that he is fighting to lead our team.”

K-State sophomore Will Spradling said he knew in a hurry Wednesday that his teammate was going to have a good night after he buried the early 3-pointers. After that, McGruder did work inside, slashing to the basket for high-percentage shots and leading the Wildcats in rebounds for the third time this season.

“Toward the end of the game, we ran a play, and I knew I wanted him on the ball screen because when he was getting in the paint he was finishing,” Spradling said. “I was doing my best to get him in position to get him to the paint to get looks.”

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