Kansas State gets back on track

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Twenty-four hours before its most impressive win of the Big 12 season -- an 81-61 victory over Baylor -- Bruce Weber kicked his Kansas State basketball team out of practice.

Loafing through drills, snickering during dead balls, not paying attention as they were being given the scouting report. The Wildcats were doing it all -- and Weber had had enough. Using words that aren’t fit for print, he told his players to go home.

There was one problem.

The Wildcats refused.

“He was like, ‘Get out of here! Get out!’” guard Rodney McGruder told ESPN.com. “I was holding the ball, and he came up and tried to yank it away from me, but I put it behind my back.”

McGruder paused.

“As a leader on this team, as a senior, I wasn’t going to let that happen,” McGruder said. “It was my job to make sure we finished that practice on a high note.”

One night later, it paid off.

The Wildcats are still tied for first place in the Big 12 standings following Saturday’s shellacking of the Bears. McGruder was far from the star of the game with 10 points, but the stance he took during Friday’s practice clearly helped to focus a handful of his teammates.

Point guard Angel Rodriguez scored 22 points, dished out 10 assists and, more importantly, forced Big 12 leading scorer Pierre Jackson into his first single-digit scoring game of the season.

Just as vital was the play of 7-foot center Jordan Henriquez, who had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks against Baylor’s imposing front line of Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers and Cory Jefferson.

A senior, Henriquez was brilliant at the end of last season but has been inconsistent in 2012-13. He entered the game averaging just 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds. Weber was asked after the game if Henriquez’s performance could be a turning point in his season.

“I hope and pray,” Weber said. “He likes playing against bigger teams, bigger players. He definitely responded to the challenge tonight.”

Of course, Weber could’ve said that about his entire team.

Just five days earlier, the Wildcats suffered what could’ve been a deflating loss in a 21-point setback to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Weber, though, reminded his squad it was still tied with KU and Oklahoma State for first place in the Big 12 standings. He pointed out that the Wildcats could claim their first conference title since 1977 by winning the rest of their games.

“We control our own destiny,” Weber told his players.

KSU is now 20-5 overall and 9-3 in conference play. Kansas and Oklahoma State both won Saturday as well, meaning there’s a three-way tie in the league race. Baylor is now 16-9 and 7-5.

“Kansas State showed why they are the 10th-ranked team in the nation,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “They really dominated and imposed their will.”

Baylor trailed by as many as 14 points early in the second half before using a flurry of Brady Heslip 3-pointers to pull within two points, 43-41. K-State, though, was hardly fazed.

Weber’s squad responded with a 16-4 run that made it 59-45, basically putting the game out of reach.

“We didn’t hang our heads,” Rodriguez said. “Right when we got into the huddle we said, ‘They punched us. We’ve got to punch them back.’”

That type of resiliency is why the Wildcats’ chances at that elusive Big 12 title are looking more and more realistic.

Four of KSU’s remaining games are against Big 12 bottom-feeders West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU and Texas. The matchup against the Longhorns could be tricky considering it’s on the road and Texas has welcomed back standout point guard Myck Kabongo from a 23-game suspension. There are also dangerous road tilts ahead with Baylor (March 2) and Oklahoma State (March 9).

Still, while the entire college basketball season has been defined by wacky, out-of-nowhere scores, Kansas State is one of the few teams that has managed to avoid upsets. Its only losses are to Kansas (twice), Michigan, Gonzaga and Iowa State (on the road). There is no shame in any of those setbacks.

“All of our goals are still in reach,” McGruder said. “We have a chance to do a lot of great things.”

Especially after what happened Saturday night in Manhattan.

And Friday night, too.