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March 15, 2012

McGruder takes over in K-State win

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- The chant from Southern Miss fans started long before the first half's conclusion and continued throughout the game. In a way, it seemed self-deprecating, but the message was mostly accurate. "One ... man ... team."

It rang out from the crowd each time Rodney McGruder scored a bucket or stepped to the free throw line. The cadence was familiar by the time the buzzer sounded. It didn't bother the man causing all the commotion, though.

His 30 points and the 70-64 Kansas State victory they created was more than a fair tradeoff in his eyes. He'll choose the heckling every time. In fact, he'll take it with a smile.

"They were chanting that?" McGruder asked with a grin. "That's kind of funny. But, you know, we got the win. So I guess what they were chanting didn't matter much."

The inevitable questions about K-State (22-10) and its physical style of play running up against Syracuse, a team without its all-everything big man in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32 were wrapped in tin foil and placed in the freezer for later. Instead, the hours after the Wildcats' tournament-opening victory over the Golden Eagles were all about McGruder.

And rightfully so.

"If he was in our conference, he'd be the MVP," Southern Miss guard Angelo Johnson said. "I think he's going to make it to the next level. He's a very special player."

It wasn't just his inflated point total or his 11-for-16 shooting from the field. McGruder also recorded four rebounds and four steals in the game. In the second half, he stole a Southern Miss pass on one end before taking it the length of the floor and not just finishing, but converting a three-point play.

Yeah, it was that kind of afternoon.

"People on the bench were saying it reminded them of Jacob (Pullen), the way we were getting all our points from one guy," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "But we won because we created balance in the second half. We won because we got him help."

That may be true, but nobody was interested in talking about balance after the game. Balance isn't fun. Balance isn't dominant. Balance isn't what creates lasting March memories.

"It was the most important performance of my life," McGruder said. "At this time of year, to help us get the win like that, it means more than anything. My teammates just kept getting me the ball in the right spots."

On Thursday, K-State's second-team All-Big 12 selection made events that would normally create headlines into notes at the bottom of pad. The fact that center Jordan Henriquez scored 15 points, recorded nine rebounds and six blocked shots while changing numerous other shots at the rim was a lightly discussed afterthought.

McGruder's performance was enough to overshadow a mountain range. And it claimed its share of victims. Forgotten will be the fact that Southern Miss led the for the majority of the second half, and that three Golden Eagles finished the afternoon in double figures.

Neil Watson's 16 points? Erased. Darnell Dodson's double-double? Wiped from public memory. Southern Miss' 34-31 rebounding edge? Irrelevant. And, conveniently for him, few will recall that Wildcat senior Jamar Samuels, who grabbed eight rebounds, didn't attempted a single shot in 27 minutes of playing time.

"I actually think I played well," Samuels said. "I played solid defense and did my job rebounding."

See, that's the thing about March in college basketball: Nobody nitpicks a win. A monster individual performance can turn sour into sweet without effort.

"There's a reason we're playing on Saturday," Martin said. "Because of (McGruder's) personality, his work ethic and his toughness. He continues to do things for us. He's phenomenal."

Though the Golden Eagles led the way for much of the game, the advantage never stretched past five points. The Wildcats held a nine-point advantage in the opening half, but only surged ahead for good on a Henriquez free throw with 7:59 to play.

K-State point guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored 13 points, joined McGruder and Henriquez in double-figures. Southern Miss' LaShay Page scored 16 his own, but did so on five-for-16 shooting.

The Wildcats will play the winner of Thursday's game between top-seeded Syracuse and No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville on Saturday.

Southern Miss finished its season with 25-9 record.



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