COLUMBIA, Mo. — Kansas State may have been teetering on the NCAA-tournament bubble a few days ago.
Now the Wildcats are rewriting some the school’s history books.
K-State defeated No. 3 Missouri 78-68 on Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena, marking the first time in school history the Wildcats have beaten a pair of top-10 teams on the road in consecutive games. The victory gives K-State (19-8, 8-7) three wins against top-10 opponents this season, another first in program history.
“These guys are accomplishing things that last year’s team couldn’t do, the year before couldn’t do and those teams were pretty good,” K-State coach Frank Martin said. “We’re doing it with a young group of kids which makes it extremely gratifying.”
Doing it on Missouri’s home court, where the Tigers (25-3, 12-3) have won 66 of their last 69 games — may or may not have made Tuesday night even more satisfying for the Wildcats, who swept the season series between the two schools.
“It felt good because usually we come here and get our heads beaten in,” Jamar Samuels said. “Tonight, we played as a team and it feels great. This team has been capable of doing this since the beginning of the season. We’ve had our bumps in the road but we’re back.”
K-State played perhaps its best overall game of the season. The Wildcats bottled up the country’s most efficient offense, limiting the Tigers to just 38.3 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from beyond the arc. Entering Tuesday, Missouri was making 51 percent of its shots at home and 41.5 percent from 3.
“They were very good defensively,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “It was a physical, physical ballgame, very aggressive and their physicality just kind of got to us. The game — the way it was played tonight — it was to their advantage.”
K-State center Jordan Henriquez effected the Tigers’ guards. The 7-foot junior blocked four shots in the first half, and his presence in the paint seemed to bother Missouri when he was on the floor.
“I feel like whether I blocked the shot or I altered it, I felt like it bothered their guards,” said Henriquez, who had six points and four rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
K-State’s defense was especially good late, holding Missouri to just six points in the final 6 minutes of the game, while the Tigers missed their last nine 3-point attempts in the final 5:09 of the contest.
“I think we were trying to get a five-point shot instead of continuing to play and being aggressive and attacking,” Haith said of all the 3-point attempts. “I thought we settled.”
The Wildcats, on the other hand, did not settle. K-State pushed the tempo, getting good looks early in the shot clock, while wearing down the Tigers, who go only seven-deep.
“One of the things we spoke about was utilizing our depth,” Martin said. “Keep running, keep running. Well, these guys ran. (Missouri) scored, we’d get it out of the net and go right up the floor and back at them.”
The Wildcats made 28-of-52 (53.8 percent) from the floor, including 6-of-9 from 3-point distance. K-State outscored Mizzou 32-26 on points in the paint, outrebounded the Tigers by six and had 17 assists to just 11 turnovers against the Big 12’s leading team in steals per game.
Seven K-State players scored at least six points, led by Rodney McGruder’s 24 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Freshman Thomas Gipson scored 13 points on 6-of-7 accuracy, while Samuels narrowly missed a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds.
Despite all of that, Missouri managed to hang around. The Wildcats, who led 40-30 at the half, built a 61-45 advantage with 12:32 left. But the Tigers clawed their way back into it, using a 15-2 run that was capped by a Kim English 3-pointer at the 6:33-mark to get Missouri to within three.
With the Tigers’ crowd on its feet roaring, McGruder buried a 3 from the wing to push the lead back to six. Missouri pulled back to within four, but McGruder answered with another jumper just inside the arc.
“I wanted the ball,” McGruder said. “I was fortunate enough to make the shots.”
Angel Rodriguez, who had six assists and just two turnovers, hit a key layup with the shot clock running down to give K-State a 70-62 lead, and later found Henriquez on a crucial ally-oop that pushed the Wildcats’ lead back out to six with 2:06 remaining.
“Angel struggled for a certain part of the second half there and then he makes that big-time baseline drive lob pass,” Martin said. “You’ve got to have courage to do that.”
While the offense was efficient, it was the defense — the trademark of K-State basketball — that continued to step up to the occasion on Tuesday.
“Defensively we got stops there at the end,” Martin said. “It was a four- or five-point game and we kept getting stop after stop.”
And because of that, the Wildcats accomplished some feats that no other team has done in the program’s history.
“At the end of the year, this is a feather that (McGruder) can put in his hat and keep with him and Jamar for the rest of their lives,” Martin said of the back-to-back top-10 wins. “They made our program better than it was when they got here. I talk about that all the time. Whenever you leave — your time is done — whatever you were a part of, is it better or worse than when you got there? If it’s better then you’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
And they do, but so does Martin and his staff, who in just five years have now coached the Wildcats to eight top-10 victories — though the last two, due to the circumstances, might just be some of the most memorable ones.
“These guys, their approach in practice kept me sane,” Martin said. “They gave me energy because they were so positive, even though we just lost two tough games at Texas and Kansas. They’ve been awesome and I couldn’t be happier they’ve been rewarded with these last two games.”