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MANHATTAN, Kan. – It's rare that a 25-point performance by a freshman against a ranked team gets overshadowed.
Saturday was one of those days.
Marcus Smart, a freshman, scored a career-high 25 for No. 22 Oklahoma State, and had the Cowboys within two possessions of a road win over No. 25 Kansas State late in the game. But that's when Rodney McGruder hit two 3-pointers, six of his game-high 28 points, and the Wildcats escaped with a 73-67 victory.
"They made big plays at the end of the game," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "Made big shots. Any time you get outrebounded like we did and allow their big guy to go off for 26 in the second half, you're not going to win."
McGruder was 10 of 13 from the field and hit all five of his 3-pointers after the break, including two in the closing minutes. The first answered seven straight points by the Cowboys, and the second gave Kansas State (12-2, 1-0 Big 12) a 70-65 lead with 1:37 left.
Le'Bryan Nash missed at the other end, and despite two rare misses from the foul line by Will Spradling, the Wildcats had enough to hang on in coach Bruce Weber's Big 12 debut.
"I've got a lot of respect for McGruder," said Markel Brown, who added 19 points for the Cowboys. "He just kind of took over the game, making timely 3s, getting into the paint, getting points off of second chance shots. He just went out there and did what he was supposed to do for his team."
Kansas State won despite an inability to shut down Smart.
The athletic guard scored on an assortment of driving layups, pull-up jumpers and free throws to build on a 23-point performance Monday night, when the Cowboys lost 69-67 to No. 10 Gonzaga.
"It was exactly like I expected," Smart said. "I knew it was going to be tough and physical. It's a battle every game. It was very physical, but that is exactly what I expected."
Nino Williams added a career-best 17 points for Kansas State, which welcomed back guards Angel Rodriguez and Martavious Irving after missing two games with injuries. Rodriguez had eight assists as the Wildcats beat the Cowboys for the third straight time.
"I thought they were very good," Ford said. "You don't beat Florida and not be very good. Very well-coached, they have some veteran players. Everybody back from last year except one player. They're very good. They're supposed to be very good."
Brown and Smart didn't get the same kind of help off the bench. The rest of the Cowboys managed just 23 points, and Oklahoma State (10-3, 0-1) was dominated on the boards.
It was a typical rough-and-tumble Big 12 game from the opening tipoff.
How much so? The Cowboys got called for a foul after 2 seconds.
There was plenty of pushing and shoving, and more than once it looked as if punches were going to be thrown between teams hoping to contend with No. 6 Kansas for conference supremacy.
Oklahoma State jumped out to an early lead before Kansas State answered with a 12-2 run, forcing Ford to call a timeout with just under 8 minutes left in the first half.
That coincided with a third foul on forward Philip Jurick, taking away one of Oklahoma State's only post presences.
"K-State, their thing is to go to the offensive glass," Smart said. "For us not to have our inside presence there to help us get those rebounds, that affected us a lot."
Nevertheless, the Cowboys answered with eight straight points, and the teams traded punches — figuratively, at least — the rest of the half. The Cowboys wound up leading 32-30 behind 23 points from Brown and Smart, their only reliable offensive production.
McGruder took over to start the second half by scoring the Wildcats' first nine points and helping them slowly pull out to a lead. But then the game truly got into a back-and-forth affair, with two of the league's best defensive teams playing very little defense for a 10-minute span.
Williams and Smart managed to get into a game of personal one-on-one, too. Both of them had a stretch of nine consecutive points for their teams, playing each other to a standstill.
The game remained tight until the final stretch, when McGruder heated back up and hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down for a 62-56 lead with 6:57 remaining
Two more 3-pointers by McGruder doomed the Cowboys to their second loss to a ranked team in the span of a week.
"You can always learn from losses," Brown said. "From both of these games, we gave us 20-plus second chance points, so obviously the deal is rebounding the ball. We played pretty good defense and made them miss. We've just got to get the rebound."