Actually, two players carried the Wildcats.
McGruder scored a game-high 30 points and 6-foot-11 junior center Jordan Henriquez added 15 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots to lift eighth-seeded Kansas State to a 70-64 victory over ninth-seeded Southern Miss Thursday in an NCAA East Region second-round game in Pittsburgh.
Kansas State (22-10), which had victories over a pair of top-10 opponents (Baylor and Missouri) for the first time in school history this season, plays the winner of top-seeded Syracuse and No. 16 UNC-Asheville on Saturday in the third round.
"It's very exciting," McGruder said. "We're very fortunate to make it to this next round."
McGruder finished 11-of-16 from the field and made 6 of 8 free throws. The 6-foot-4 junior gave the Wildcats an early 17-10 lead with a steal that ended with a goaltending call against Southern Miss.
"He's a very special player," Southern Miss guard Angelo Johnson said. "If he was in our conference, he'd be the MVP. Smart player, knocks down his shots, makes his free throws. I think he's going to make it to the next level."
"There's a reason we're playing on Saturday," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said, " 'cause of his personality, his work ethic, his toughness. He continues to do that for us. He's phenomenal."
Southern Miss rallied in the second half, and Dodson sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Golden Eagles their biggest lead, 45-40, with 13:12 remaining.
That's when Henriquez came up big. He scored six consecutive points, sinking four free throws and then scoring on an offensive rebound for a 46-45 lead. The 53 percent free throw shooter would make two free throws with 7:38 remaining for a 53-51 lead, one the Wildcats wouldn't relinquish.
It was defensively where Henriquez was dominant.
"When you're used to going to the rim, he really changes the game," Eustachy said. "When you get by somebody, you got to get by him. He had six blocked shots, and those are all layups. That's 12 points. ... McGruder is a great talent, but Henriquez is as important to that team as McGruder."
Southern Miss kept it close, cutting its deficit to three on Dodson's steal and dunk at 2:30 and again on a Watson layup with 1:13 remaining. Cedric Jenkins made a 3-pointer to make it 68-64, but Rodriguez -- who was benched briefly but returned to score nine of his 13 points in the second half -- answered with two free throws with 5.7 seconds left to seal the victory.
"You know, he made some mistakes. He's a freshman," Martin said of Rodriguez. "These freshmen are going to drive me nuts, make me cry on national television. But my trust in my kids doesn't come from a mistake in a game. ... And I've got tremendous faith in him. That's why you saw him out there making the plays he made toward the end of the game."
Big 12 tournament remains a trouble spot for K-State
--The quarterfinal loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament marked the fourth time in five seasons under coach Frank Martin that Kansas State has lost its opening game in the event. Martin stands 2-5 in the tourney after taking the Wildcats to the championship game in 2010. "I'm not a fan of conference tournaments," Martin conceded. "I never have been. I'm ready to go play somebody else. I'm sick and tired of watching Big 12 basketball to be honest with you. It's too good."
--One bright spot during the Big 12 tournament was F Jordan Henriquez, who erupted for 22 points and 14 rebounds against Baylor. Henriquez was not the best big man on the floor, but only because Perry Jones fulfilled his potential and scored a career-best 31 for the Bears. Over his last four games entering the NCAA Tournament, Henriquez averaged 15.3 points, almost nine more than his season average of 6.7. He also rates as the Wildcats' top interior defender. Earlier this season, he broke the Kansas State career record for blocked shots.
--Under Martin, who is in his fifth season, Kansas State has won at least 21 games each year. The Wildcats also finished with winning conference records each of those seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Are we going to be worried about one game or 30 games? We've been doing this for six months. We know we can play with anybody when we play the game the right way. We didn't play it the right way (against Baylor)." -- Kansas State coach Frank Martin.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Over coach Frank Martin's entire five-year tenure, opponents have been constantly impressed with how hard the Wildcats play, a trait that has enabled Kansas State to win with strong defense and second-chance opportunities on offense.
This season, however, Kansas State has lacked those qualities more often than in other seasons under Martin. The defense came on late, in part because younger players had finally grasped the concepts, though question again surfaced after Baylor riddled Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.
The Wildcats often rely too much on G Rodney McGruder to score, either off the catch or the dribble. He is an underrated contributor, yet he should not be asked to carry a team. G Angel Rodriguez is a promising freshman who is too mistake-prone while running the point.
With the combustible Martin as coach, instability always exists in the Kansas State system, resulting in constant shuffling of personnel. It would not be unusual for anyone to leave. Two promising sophomores, F Wally Judge and G Nick Russell, left after last season and were missed this year. If the underclassmen return intact, Kansas State will have the ingredients to contend in the Big 12 next season as long as Rodriguez improves, G Will Spradling regains his long-range touch and C Jordan Henriquez flourishes on both ends with more consistency. McGruder is pretty much a given and will provide consistent effort and production.
REGULAR SEASON REVIEW:
A tournament championship, the first under Martin, at the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas, provided an encouraging lead-in to Big 12 play. Inconsistency, however, marred any attempt by Kansas State to contend. It needed a late-season push to finish fifth with a 10-8 record after an impressive sweep of Missouri was offset by an inexplicable sweep Oklahoma administered. The Wildcats were more focused on the road, where they finished with the same 5-4 record as they posted at home in conference games.
--Junior G Rodney McGruder became only the eighth Kansas State player to score 30 points or more in an NCAA tourney game and surpassed the 1,000-point mark in the process. He has 1,014.
--Senior F Jamar Samuels entered the Big 12 tournament as only the sixth Kansas State player to ever reach the 700 mark in career rebounds. He failed to snag a carom, however, during the 29 minutes he played in the quarterfinal loss to Baylor.