Rodriguez sparks Cats past OU

By Joel Jellison

They’re the kind of moments point guards live for. And Angel Rodriguez is no different.

Stuck in a 1-for-10 rut, and No. 16 Kansas State’s lead over Oklahoma dwindled down to seven points, the sophomore point guard finally got one to go, a layup that put his team up nine.

Rodriguez made his next two shots, another layup and a 3-pointer to put the Wildcats ahead nine, and put the game away with a key assist to Rodney McGruder as K-State defeated Oklahoma 69-60 on Saturday in Bramlage Coliseum.

It’s the eighth straight win for the Wildcats, and the first time they’ve started 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play since the 2007-08 season, when they started 5-0. K-State will face Kansas on Tuesday at home, with the winner taking sole possession of first place in the league.

The Wildcats (15-2, 4-0) led by as much as 14 in the second half before the Sooners (12-4, 3-1) started making their way back into the game. Romero Osby led a quick 6-0 run to bring Oklahoma within seven points, and that’s when Rodriguez finally made his first basket of the second half with 5:27 to play.

Rodriguez, who was one of four Wildcats in double-figures with 12 points, said it was the play that turned his confidence around.

“I started being more aggressive and not settling for 3s,” he said. “I finally, finally, finally made some layups, that was the difference.”

The Sooners cut the lead down to six points with 4:10 left, but Rodriquez made a quick layup on the other end to extend it back to eight points. After an Osby basket, it was Rodriguez again, knocking down his only 3-pointer of the game to push K-State ahead nine with 2:43 to play.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Rodriguez was tough to handle in the final few minutes.

“He’s very quick and he’s able to attack and I thought he did that effectively,” he said. “Then he knocks down a 3 also there late - that was a big shot. Very good player - made plays down the stretch.”

Rodriguez essentially put the game away with a key pass to McGruder at the 1:30 mark. The sophomore sized up the Sooners 6-foot-7 forward Osby, ran down the shot clock and then dribbled toward the lane, passing between two defenders where McGruder waited to finish with a layup.

Rodriguez said it’s the kind of moment he loves, late in the game with the ball in his hands, and one he had to thank McGruder for.

“Osby played good D on me, and I told Rodney thanks for cutting because I would have had to shoot a crazy 3 or probably make a crazy play,” he said. “He cut and made a layup. I know Rodney is our go-to-guy, and as much as I love having the ball I think he deserves to make the play. He’s been here the longest and he’s our best scorer.”

Rodriguez was 1-for-7 in the first half and missed his first four shots of the second half. He finished the game 3-for-3 in the final five and a half minutes.

Maybe more impressive than his scoring line is what else he did with the ball, dishing nine assists with just one turnover.

It was a special game for Rodriguez as well, as his mother was able to make the trip from Puerto Rico to see him play for the first time in his collegiate career.

“Last year she was always trying to come here, but the ticket is so expensive,” he said. “I finally got a chance to bring her this year. I’m just trying to make her proud.”

K-State coach Bruce Weber said Rodriguez is finally getting it going again after missing time after a travel mishap and an injury right after Christmas cause him to miss two games.

“It was a long stretch there he didn’t practice much, he didn’t get much reps, and it hurt him,” he said. “Now we get in some games, he’s starting to get going, and he had a couple big plays, and good for his mom to see him.

“The nice thing is nine to one assist-to-turnovers. We told him you don’t always have to score, make the good pass, good play - I think he’s starting to buy into that a little bit.”

The Wildcats led by eight to start the second half, and saw Oklahoma climb within five points before a 12-3 run pushed the lead out to 14 points, the biggest lead for either team.

It was a somewhat uncharacteristic game for the Wildcats, who were outrebounded 39-to-25 and made three less field goals from the field than Oklahoma. Weber said the difference in the game came at the perimeter, where K-State made 10-of-24 3-point attempts.

“It’s the difference maker in the game when you study the stats because they had more field goals than us, and overall they dominated the rebounds,” he said.

On the Oklahoma side, Kruger said his team had its own uncharacteristic night, turning the ball over 16 times. The Wildcats scored 26 points off turnovers.

“(We) didn’t take very good care of the ball and that’s entirely because of Kansas State,” he said. “I thought their defense was outstanding, they did a terrific job and dictated, and we hadn’t had that much trouble handling the ball all season, but we did today.”

McGruder led the Wildcats with 20 points, while Will Spradling had 15 and Shane Southwell scored 12 points.

Throughout the season, K-State has often had a strong performance by McGruder, backed by one other player finishing in double-figures.

McGruder said Saturday’s performance said a lot about the team.

“We’re a team, not just one person can lead us to victory,” he said. “We do this collectively. I’m proud of everyone that stepped up and played their role.”

The Wildcats trailed throughout the first half, but used a 14-4 run over the last five minutes to lead 35-27 at the half. McGruder was scoreless for the first 13 minutes of the game, and finished the half with 11 points, including three consecutive 3-pointers during the run.

Kruger said he thought that was the turning point of the game. Weber said the team jumped on McGruder’s back.

“That was quite a run there with those three 3s,” he said. “Every one he read the cuts, catching when he was open and jumping up and shooting with a lot of confidence.”

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