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March 3, 2012

McGruder, Cats toss aside O-State

A statement game it was not. Kansas State's 77-58 victory over Oklahoma State didn't change the conversation or alter anyone's thinking. The NCAA Tournament's selection committee won't dissect it, either. Instead, it was what it was: A home win over an injury-depleted, 14-17 squad struggling to stay afloat.

On Saturday, the Wildcats did only what they were supposed to. Nothing more. Nothing less. But for a team still fighting to sustain focus and maturity, that was important.

"I thought the focus was better today," coach Frank Martin said following the game. "It wasn't great, but it was better. Yesterday in practice we must have had 50 turnovers. I was worried about that when the game started."

Better, of course, is good. K-State could have easily licked a stamp, slapped it in the top corner of a manila envelope and mailed in Saturday's game from afar. A week ago, it probably would have. Rodney McGruder's team-high 24 points weren't needed and the two emphatic dunks that Jordan Henriquez threw down were probably unnecessarily violent.

The sight was a welcomed one for Wildcat fans, though, as Martin's team had finally focused in on its home floor and dispatched a weaker opponent with aggression. In that way, Saturday represented a change of pace.

"Tournament time is coming and the NCAAs are coming, so it's hard for our young guys who haven't even been through it to focus on now," senior Jamar Samuels said. "They haven't been there, but I think today was great. Today helped them. We just buckled down."

Samuels was one of few who didn't have to search far for meaning in the win. For both he and fellow senior Victor Ojeleye, it represented the beginning of the end, one last game in Bramlage Coliseum. That part of the evening, like the game itself, couldn't have gone any smoother.

There were visible tears from both seniors. The home team had the game in hand early. Family members were present, Samuels got his double-double and Ojeleye, a senior walk-on, scored K-State's first basket in his first career start. Both got to make a ceremonious exit in the final two minutes.

It's exactly how they draw it up. Reporters will get to write the phrase "high note" and students will have a reason to celebrate.

Other than the feel-good stuff, though, Saturday simply didn't carry a lot of context.

The game mattered none for Big 12 Tournament seeding. Whether or not K-State is written on line No. 5 or No. 6 on the bracket is completely dependent on what happens between Texas and Kansas on Saturday night. A Jayhawk win in Lawrence makes the Wildcats a five seed. A Longhorn victory makes it a six.

A loss would have been enough to make raise a flag in the NCAA Tournament seeding process and strike fear into those worried about K-State's maturity. But the win? Well, it was good in the way that it wasn't a loss.

It did manage to reveal some things, though.

It showed that a McGruder hot streak is capable of burring an opponent with bulldozer speed. The junior's 24 points came on 10-of-14 shooting. The eight straight points he scored in the second half fueled a 15-0 run that stretched the Wildcats' lead out to 16 less than five minutes into the period.

"I looked up at one point, and (McGruder) had 12 points," Samuels said. "I looked up again and it was at 20. He can score in runs. It looks easy for him."

The win over the Cowboys also showed that, for all the ups and downs of his career, Samuels is playing his best basketball at the perfect time. The 17 points and 12 rebounds he racked up against Oklahoma State represented his fourth double-double in the last six games. Samuels has been especially inconsistent in the postseason during his career, but will enter next week's Big 12 Tournament with personal momentum.

Then, there was the other stuff. Saturday reinforced the fact that Oklahoma State's Keiton Page, who led the Cowboys with 22 points, is deserving of the praise he receives. It showed that his teammate, Markel Bryant, who briefly quieted the Bramlage crowd with a pair of dunks, has elite-level dunking ability. It also reminded that Jordan Henriquez (16 points and eight rebounds) is capable of changing a game on both ends of the floor.

There are still defensive lapses and the occasional turnover that begs for a soundtrack of circus music, too. It's not perfect and probably never will be, but things could certainly be worse as K-State heads into postseason play.

"It's a stepping stone for us," Ojeleye said. "A positive experience like this gets some momentum going into the Big 12 Tournament. I think that's very important."

Guard Jeremy Jones played 13 minutes against Oklahoma State and scored three points on 1-for-5 shooting in his first game back after missing more than a month with an ankle injury.

Freshman Thomas Gipson played just five minutes. Sophomore Will Spradling played 33 without a turnover and racked up seven assists.

K-State, which finished the regular season 10-8 in the league and 21-9 overall, will open play in next weeks Phillips 66 Big 12 Tournament on Thursday against either Iowa State or Baylor at either 11:30 or 8:30 p.m.



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