Rodney McGruder caught a perfectly placed pass and let the ball soar to the basket, watching it fall through the net as the buzzer filled a silenced Ferrell Arena on Saturday in Waco, Texas.
It was a 64-61 win over the Baylor Bears. It was win No. 98 for Kansas State’s senior class.
McGruder, Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez will play in their final home game of the season on Tuesday, and go for win No. 99, against TCU at 7 p.m. inside Bramlage Coliseum.
Their careers began with a trip to the Big 12 tournament championship game, and an NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight. And as they near the twilight of their four years with the Wildcats, they also near the school-record 29 wins K-State had in their freshman season.
Irving said he expects it to be an emotional night.
“All the senior nights have been emotional so far, I know this will be my last game here, so it will be emotional,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride. Hopefully it can continue to be and we can end it on the right note.”
The three seniors came to K-State prior to the 2009-10 season as part of a highly touted class that included Wally Judge. McGruder logged the most minutes as a freshman, leading the class with 3.9 points per game.
Four years later, McGruder is leading the team with nearly 15 points per game and both Irving and Henriquez have been key contributors to the Wildcats’ season so far.
Henriquez said there have been too many memories to speak of over the last four years, and it’s hard to believe Tuesday is the finale in Bramlage.
“We’ve been together for a long time,” he said. “When Tuesday comes it comes. I try not to think too much about it.”
The seniors also went through a coaching change for their final season, as former coach Frank Martin departed in March and Bruce Weber took over.
Weber said when he arrived, he made it clear to the seniors the coaching staff would be looking to win now.
“I think it says a lot they have the winningest class in history,” Weber said. “They have great experience, I think those three are really important. From the get-go I said, ‘this is your team, we’re not worried about the future, we’re worried about right now,’ and I think they appreciated that. They’ve really bought into it.”
After the way last season finished, with the Wildcats losing to Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, sans Jamar Samuels, it was tough to get a read for how good K-State would be with the group left over.
But McGruder credits Weber with steering everything back in the right direction.
“It just says a lot about him, the things he’s done to help us get to this point,” he said. “He’s done a tremendous job of trying to turn this program around.”
McGruder, the team’s leader over the past two seasons, might get the biggest applause from the crowd on Tuesday night. Weber has called him the face of the program and the player that really helped the team buy-in to a new coach early on.
McGruder said he expects his emotions to be running high.
“If I didn’t show emotion, it would show that I didn’t really care,” he said. “I love this place, I love the fans, I love the media. If I didn’t show any emotion it would seem that I didn’t care about my four years here.”
McGruder said there won’t be much time to dwell on Tuesday, as they need to win to stay atop the Big 12 standings. With a win, the Wildcats would have a chance to clinch at least a share of the title on Saturday with a win over Oklahoma State.
There is one piece of business that Irving said might be most emotional to him — the tunnel dance. Irving started the dance as a freshman, and knows Tuesday will be his final time. But, he hopes it isn’t K-State’s last time.
“It’s going to hurt, it will be emotional,” he said. “I really hope that it continues years from now.”
Saturday’s game-winning 3-pointer by McGruder was the first since Jarrett Hart beat Gardner-Webb with a 3 in the 2003-04 season.
The Wildcats defeated Gardner-Webb 68-65 on Nov. 29, 2003 as Hart made a 3 with one second left.
Askia Jones was the last one before that, beating Iowa State with a 3-pointer on Feb. 17, 1990.