As the final seconds ticked off Kansas State’s 79-70 win over Iowa State on Saturday, the student section in Bramlage Coliseum began chanting “Beat KU.”
Sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored a career-high 20 points, nodded as he took in the chant, only a blank expression on his face.
With the win over the Cyclones, the No. 13-ranked Wildcats (19-4, 8-2) took sole possession of first place in the Big 12, while Monday’s opponent Kansas slipped out of the lead with its third straight loss.
Rodriguez said there’s a long way to go, but Saturday’s win did send a message to the league.
“I feel like every game we’ve won is a statement because it’s a long season,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody is talking about ‘you guys are in first place,’ but we’re pretty much halfway through the Big 12, there’s a lot of games left and we have to go to other buildings. Does it feel good? Yeah, but we can’t settle.”
It will be the first time the Wildcats have been ranked higher than KU in a Sunflower Showdown since the teams met in the Elite Eight in 1988, as a Lon Kruger-coached K-State team was ranked 20th and Kansas was unranked. Kruger’s Oklahoma team beat the Jayhawks 72-66 on Saturday to give KU a third-straight loss, all to unranked teams.
The last time Kansas lost four-straight games was in the 1988-89 season, Roy Williams’ first year as coach of the Jayhawks.
The K-State players made a point to downplay the importance of Monday’s game in Lawrence, saying that every game is as important as the next, and they have to treat it just like they do every game.
Senior Rodney McGruder, who led the Wildcats with 22 points, said they don’t have the time to dwell on their position in the league race.
“It feels good, but it’s not the end of the Big 12 so you can’t really think about that,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out and play every night because now we’ve got a target on our back.”
After a tightly contested first half, the Wildcats entered the second half with a one-point lead. McGruder and Thomas Gipson teamed up early to push K-State ahead by four points, but Iowa State charged back with a 5-0 run ending on a 3-pointer from Will Clyburn to put the Cyclones ahead 39-38.
It was the last lead of the game for the Cyclones and the first points for Clyburn, who has averaged more than 20 points per game since Iowa State’s win over K-State on Jan. 26. Clyburn scored just nine points.
Iowa State (16-6, 6-3) coach Fred Hoiberg said Clyburn had an off night.
“It just didn’t seem like Will was in a great rhythm — it just didn’t seem like he was in a great flow,” he said. “They did a good job, and obviously they’ve been scouting him well.”
Shane Southwell ended the Cyclones run with a 3-pointer that sparked a quick 8-0 run that ended with a 3 from Will Spradling — his only points of the contest — putting the Wildcats ahead 46-39.
But that lead wouldn’t stick, as Iowa State got back into the game with 11 points from Tyrus McGee in an 11-4 run to tie the game at 50. Rodriguez, McGruder and Gipson took control the rest of the way.
Martavious Irving put the Wildcats ahead by 3, and then he and McGruder pushed the lead out to 61-52. Iowa State got as close as 65-57 before Rodriguez made a 3 and Gipson scored three points to give K-State a 71-57 lead with 4:53 to play — their biggest lead in the game.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said Rodriguez, who put the game away by making 6 of 6 from the foul line in the last two and a half minutes, controlled the pace for the Wildcats.
“First half he was going a little too fast, second half he was more poised,” Weber said. “He gives us energy and we go off of him. There’s no doubt about that.”
Melvin Ejim scored the final points of the game for the Cyclones with 21 seconds left, and when Rodriguez brought the ball across half court, the chants began.
Rodriguez and McGruder were two of four Wildcats in double figures scoring, as Gipson had 16 points and Irving finished with 10.
McGruder scored just 13 points in the first game against Iowa State, but Hoiberg said he was tougher to slow down this time around.
“McGruder was so aggressive,” he said. “That kid’s hard to guard. He’s a hell of a player and he’s going to be playing for money next year.”
It was the first time McGruder scored 20 or more since he scored 20 against Oklahoma on Jan. 19, in Manhattan. Since then, he was held to 13 twice and seven twice before scoring 18 against Texas Tech on Tuesday.
Weber was happy with what he saw out of McGruder against a good Iowa State team.
“He’s our go-to guy for scoring, everyone is keying on him, and I think today, against a good defensive team, he did a good job of recognizing,” he said. “Just a good balanced game for him.”
K-State used an 11-0 run to take an 11-2 run to open the game. The Cyclones used a 16-2 run to go ahead 26-19, before K-State answered with a 14-2 run to go ahead 31-28. The Wildcats led 33-32 at halftime.
The Wildcats were outrebounded 27-26, but won the second-chance points battle 20-10 and scored 27 points off 20 Iowa State turnovers.