The Kansas State Wildcats punched their ticket to the Big 12 conference tournament final with a huge win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
The first half could most positively be described as a slugfest. Both teams were effective on the defensive end of the floor, as neither team shot better than 32 percent from the floor. Behind defensive play from forward Jordan Henriquez and a balanced scoring attack, the Wildcats took a 28-23 lead into the locker room.
It was clear from the beginning of the second half that Kansas State were determined to get another shot at in-state rival Kansas in the conference championship game. Guard Rodney McGruder was simply unconscious as the Wildcats opened up a lead that they would not let go.
Although the Wildcats rode a strong defensive effort as a team to victory, it was McGruder's ability to out-duel Marcus Smart that gave them a huge advantage.
Smart had a huge first half for the Cowboys, scoring over half of his team's points. However, it was McGruder that put together the stronger second half in the one-on-one matchup between two of the tournament's best players.
In the end it was the Wildcats' ability to endure the battle of attrition that paved the way for their shot at a Big 12 championship.
Marcus Smart was the prime time player of the first half. Despite little help from the rest of the Cowboys on the offensive side of the floor, Anthony Slater pointed out Smart's scoring prowess:
#OKstate players not named Marcus Smart: 5/23 shooting for 15 points. Smart: 5/13 for 16 points.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 16, 2013
Kansas State Athletics tweeted an effective summary of a slow-moving first half:
Rodney McGruder came out on fire in the second half. Brett Regan of GoPowercat.com noted:
Rodney McGruder wants to play tomorrow. And he's making sure his team does too. He's scored all nine of K-State's points this half.— Brett Regan (@brettregan) March 16, 2013
Campus Insider feels that Kansas State has been underrated all season. They just may be one of those teams that could make you look smart in your office March Madness pool.
Kansas State has been underrated nearly the whole way. Shooting well and playing D can get you into Sweet 16very easily.— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) March 16, 2013
McGruder's contribution in this tournament can't be undersold. D. Scott Fritchen offered this nugget on his play:
Rodney McGruder's 47 points are the most combined points in back-to-back games for him this season. Great timing by Rod.— D. Scott Fritchen (@DScottFritchen) March 16, 2013
The Wildcats avenged their most recent loss by beating the Cowboys. This was the kind of tough, physical win that you want to see for a team as it approaches March Madness.
Kansas State lost its two previous meetings against the Jayhawks, and now it will get a third matchup with their bitter rival. If they can pick up the win in the conference championship game, they'll have some serious momentum going into the tournament.
Oklahoma State has some soul-searching to do after this loss. It was far too reliant on Smart to carry the team, and Kansas State was the more balanced squad in this one. The Cowboys have potential to make a run in the tournament, but these are the kind of losses that will leave a shade of doubt going into the tournament.