McGruder, Wildcats Claw Past Longhorns

Kansas State pulls away in the second half for a 66-49 victory in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament.

All year long, Texas has been prone to long stretches of stagnant offense. Thursday, those issues came home to roost at the same time as the emergence of Wildcat wing Rodney McGruder.

Texas coach Rick Barnes talked after the Longhorns beat TCU 70-57 on Wednesday night in the opening round of the tournament about needing a much better effort on Thursday to hang with the Wildcats, who won both regular season matchups by double-digits. And there the Longhorns were, at the 12:48 mark, within striking distance at 45-38.

But Texas went ice cold over the next four minutes, while McGruder scored one-third of his game-high 24 points, leading the Wildcats on a 11-0 run. And later, when the Longhorns hit back-to-back threes to turn a 17-point game into an 11-point one, the Wildcats responded with two quick buckets, including one from the All-Big 12 guard.

"That's what's been really the story of our season," Barnes said. "We're always fighting from behind because of a turnover or two or three plays that you absolutely shouldn't make or can't make if you want to be an NCAA team."

Sure enough, Texas's loss should keep the 16-17 Longhorns out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Rick Barnes era.

Texas committed eight second-half turnovers in a stanza where the Longhorns also shot just 6-for-24, or 25.0 percent, from the field. Overall, the Wildcats claimed a 24-10 advantage in points off turnovers for the game.

The Longhorns were looking for a different result than the two regular season Wildcat wins, and Texas went about trying to achieve that result through different measures. After nine consecutive games as the starter, guard DeMarcus Holland was replaced in the starting lineup by super-sub Sheldon McClellan, while Cameron Ridley earned the start at center. And Texas jumped out quickly, scoring on three of its first four possessions to take a 7-1 lead.

But Kansas State made a run of its own, going on a 14-2 burst to take a six-point advantage. Still, the Longhorns trailed by just one point with under two minutes left, and had they closed well, the Longhorns would have been in a strong position.

Instead, Wildcat forward D.J. Johnson tipped in a missed layup from McGruder. Then, a McClellan turnover led to a McGruder three-pointer, and the Wildcats led 34-28 at halftime.

"We still don't understand the game yet in terms of how valuable the ball is … how to execute when things aren't going well," Barnes said.

McGruder paced the game in both scoring (24 points) and rebounding (seven boards, five offensive). Angel Rodriguez scored 13 points and dished out five assists. The Wildcats also received a great boost from Johnson, who scored eight hustle points and grabbed seven rebounds, four offensive, in 15 minutes. All-told, the Wildcats had a 16-9 advantage in second-chance points.

And the Wildcats did their best to keep Texas point guard Myck Kabongo from going off, as he did in the two-teams' second meeting when he scored 24 points. Time and time again, Kabongo drove into the middle of the lane, only to find the area around the basket congested. He consistently found open looks for other players, dishing out seven assists, but more often than not, those looks were missed, and he also had five turnovers. Kabongo wasn't able to get his own shot, and he didn't score his first points until he made two free throws with 41 seconds left in the game.

Julien Lewis led Texas with 13 points, though he made just 3-of-13 shots, and Lewis credited Kabongo with doing "a great job" at finding open Longhorns, though Texas shot just 5-of-19 from three.

"We just have to make those shots," Lewis said.

Jonathan Holmes scored 10.

Now, the Longhorns are in wait-and-see mode, and it's unclear which direction Texas will head. The NIT hasn't ever taken a team with a losing record, but at the same time, the tournament doesn't count games against Division II teams — in a measure designed to stop teams from exploiting WINS over lesser opponents — so theoretically, the Longhorns' loss to D2 Chaminade wouldn't count, bumping Texas to a .500 record and NIT eligibility.

Still, many think a more likely outcome is an invite to the CBI. Either way, Barnes said it was important that the Longhorns get a chance to play more basketball together.

"I've never taken it for granted," Barnes said of making the NCAA Tournament. "Am I disappointed? I'm disappointed. But we are who we are. We weren't good enough. We weren't good enough to make the NCAA Tournament this year."

Kansas State (26-6) will take on Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals.

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