Breaking out last year’s postseason neon uniforms, Baylor tried to recreate the electricity it had during last year’s run to the Elite Eight.
Grasping the importance of Saturday night’s game, the Ferrell Center crowd of 9,656 was loud and raucous from the start and the Bears played with high emotion.
Then Rodney McGruder pulled the plug.
McGruder buried a 3-pointer as the clock expired to lift No. 13 Kansas State to a stunning 64-61 win to land a major blow to the Bears’ NCAA tournament hopes.
The crowd dressed in neon T-shirts went from decibel-bending loud to dead silent as the Bears suffered their most crushing defeat of the season. The elated Kansas State players swarmed McGruder in a pile at midcourt while the Bears trudged into the locker room following the energy sapping loss.
“It’s extremely tough,” Baylor guard Pierre Jackson said. “I don’t remember losing on a buzzer beater ever. We just played against a real good team tonight. As y’all saw, they won by a hair.”
The Wildcats (24-5, 13-3) needed a second chance at the winning shot to remain tied with Kansas for the Big 12 lead. They got it when Baylor’s desperation attempt for the win went awry.
After Jackson buried a pair of free throws to tie the game at 61 with 35.3 seconds remaining, the Wildcats tried to set up a game-winning play. But
following a time out with 7.7 seconds remaining, Shane Southwell shot a 10-foot airball that went out of bounds to give Baylor possession with one second remaining.
Baylor coach Scott Drew brought in little-used reserve Jacob Neubert to throw a long inbounds pass to the other end of the court. Drew has used Neubert in similar types of situations before.
But Neubert’s pass sailed over 7-1 center Isaiah Austin’s outstretched arms at the other end of the court. Since no Baylor player touched the ball, the Wildcats regained possession at their end of the court with one second remaining.
“With one second, it’s hard not to try to win the game,” Drew said. “Jacob has done a great job of making that pass. Isaiah has come down with it, Cory (Jefferson) has come down with it. So it would be tough not to try it from underneath out of bounds. You play the game to win and if you have a chance to win, as a player, I want to take it.”
Given a second chance, Angel Rodriguez threw a perfect inbounds pass to McGruder who got a great look from the right side of the arc and drained the winning 3-pointer. The senior had missed his previous four 3-point shots, but this one was perfect.
“I told Angel to look for me and see if you could find me,” McGruder said. “He did a great job of finding me and we did a good job of screening. It was a mob scene after the basket. My brothers were just proud of me and they showed me love.”
Bubble gets thinner
The bitter loss will make it tougher for the Bears (17-12, 8-8) to reach the NCAA tournament with Monday’s game against Texas in Austin and next Saturday’s matchup against No. 6 Kansas at the Ferrell Center remaining in the regular season.
“I think short-term memory is very important in this league, especially right now,” Drew said. “Obviously, it’s going to be hard sleeping and it hurts like heck, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to regroup in a short period of time. We leave for Austin (Sunday) and hopefully we do what we need to do down there.”
With both teams playing physical, intense basketball from the start, everybody had trouble getting open looks. The Bears shot just 39.2 percent while the Wildcats hit 42.9 percent.
McGruder led all Kansas State scorers with 18 points while Rodriguez had his usual superb game against the Bears as he finished with 13 points and eight assists.
Jackson led the Bears with 18 points and seven assists but hit just four of 12 field goals. Jefferson contributed 14 points and eight rebounds while Austin finished with 11 points, three blocked shots and a game-high 12 rebounds despite suffering a cut on his chin that needed a bandage with 14:50 left in the game.
After the Bears went into halftime with a 34-33 lead, the Wildcats busted Baylor’s zone by coming out with a 7-0 run. Southwell nailed an outside shot, McGruder drilled a short jumper and then took a pass from Rodriguez for a slam while drawing a foul from Austin. He converted the free throw to give the Wildcats a 40-34 lead.
Back in front
The Bears kept cutting into Kansas State’s lead and finally grabbed it when Jefferson got inside for a basket, drew a foul and hit the free throw. With 3:57 remaining, the Bears finally had their first lead at 56-54 since the opening minute of the second half.
“We stuck to what we do defensively and we were aggressive offensively,” Jefferson said. “Pierre did what he does best attacking the basket and finding people. When he’s doing that, we play harder and feed off his energy.”
Baylor’s lead didn’t last as Rodriguez drained a trey and then hit Jordan Henriquez for a dunk with 2:44 remaining for a 59-56 edge. The Bears tied the game after Jackson hit three of his next four free throws.
But in the end, Kansas State was celebrating on Baylor’s home floor while the Bears watched their NCAA tournament hopes take one more hit.
“No matter how we lost it, a loss is a loss,” Jefferson said. “We’ve obviously lost before this year, and we know how to bounce back from that.”