It looked as if the Kansas State men’s basketball team had developed a trend on Sunday.
Nine days after struggling through a loss to Michigan in the NIT Tip-Off final, the Wildcats struggled early with South Carolina Upstate at Bramlage Coliseum.
Luckily for K-State, senior Rodney McGruder scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats to a 72-53 win.
K-State (6-1) needed the first six and a half minutes to build up an 8-4 lead, but the Spartans went on an 8-0 lead to take a 12-8 lead.
McGruder tied the game at 12 with 9:42 to play. The senior scored the next five points for the Wildcats to take a 17-16 lead.
Wildcats’ coach Bruce Weber said they got off to a slow start after going more than a week without a game.
“We were a little sluggish to start out — it was nine days without a game,” he said. “We scrimmaged with refs on Wednesday just to simulate some game conditions, but it’s not the same. I thought we guarded well and did some good things on the defensive ends early, but we couldn’t get anything going offensively.”
With the Wildcats leading 22-20 with 4:59 to play in the first half, Thomas Gipson opened a 14-0 run with five straight points. The run also featured a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers from Omari Lawrence as the Wildcats led 36-20 at halftime.
Lawrence scored all of his career-high 10 points in the first half.
“He got some energy going and that is what we have told him all year to take advantage of his minutes,” Weber said. “If you have an open shot, shoot it. If not, do something else. He has been a good defender.”
McGruder and Will Spradling took the reins of the offense in the opening minutes of the second half, as they combined for an 11-4 run to open up the second half.
McGruder scored 11 in the first half and 11 in the second half, and added seven rebounds and three assists. He said the time off was beneficial to him.
“What really helped out this week was having a week off so we could get refreshed mentally and physically. It just allowed us to get back to doing the things that we normally do.”
Although Weber thought McGruder looked better in Sunday’s game, he admits he would still like to see more out of his senior.
“I thought Rodney is obviously getting his numbers a little better, starting to feel a little more comfortable,” he said. “He still needs to take his open shots.”
The Wildcats pushed their lead out to 27 points with a McGruder bucket at the 12:37 mark, but Upstate responded quickly with a 9-4 run to cut the deficit to 62-40. The Spartans pulled within 19 in the final seconds of the game.
Weber said the slow start was the reason for a score that was closer than it needed to be.
“If we would have made a couple more shots early and take care of the ball a little better maybe you get a little bit better margin, but that is something to talk about and watch,” he said.
The Wildcats won the battle of the boards 45-37, including grabbing 19 offensive rebounds.
Upstate coach Eddie Payne said the Wildcats were too physical for his team to keep up with.
“From my perspective, I was disappointed in the way we played,” he said. “Kansas State is a very good defensive team — they’re very tough and physical. Frank Martin put together a group of kids that play that way, and I think coach Weber has done a really good job building on that. They defend, they cover the bench, and they don’t lose a lot of intensity or production.”
K-State had four players in double-figure scoring, as Gipson had 11 and Adrian Diaz had 10 to go with the performances from McGruder and Lawrence. Nino Williams had a game-high nine rebounds.
The Wildcats will now deal with another break, not playing again until Saturday when they go on the road to face George Washington in McGruder’s hometown of Washington D.C.
Weber said that game will be important for the Wildcats as they look to build a tournament resume throughout the season.
“We have a big, big game next Saturday against George Washington,” he said. “To get a road win would be a huge deal to us, both confidence-wise and resume-wise. Obviously for Rodney to go home and the other guys from out east, it’s a big deal.”