K-State looks to keep pace in Big 12 title race

(AP) — Locked in a tight battle for its first-ever Big 12 title, Kansas State knows it can’t afford a misstep, especially against one of the lowliest teams in the conference.

The 13th-ranked Wildcats try to take another step toward a long-awaited league championship by getting past visiting Texas Tech on Monday night.

With four games remaining, Kansas State (22-5, 11-3) is tied atop the Big 12 with rival Kansas, which has won at least a share of the past eight titles. The Wildcats kept pace with the Jayhawks on Saturday with an 81-69 victory at Texas, moving closer to their first regular-season conference crown since claiming one in the Big Eight in 1976-77.

Rodney McGruder’s 20 points led four players in double figures Saturday and Kansas State went 9 for 18 from 3-point range against a team that has held opponents to 27.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Wildcats had 19 assists on their 26 baskets, with Angel Rodriguez and Shane Southwell recording six apiece.

“The big thing is we moved the basketball,” coach Bruce Weber said. “We kind of talked about that (Friday night).”

Over its final four games, Kansas State will host the two bottom teams in the Big 12 standings – Texas Tech (9-16, 2-12) and TCU – and travel to Baylor and No. 14 Oklahoma State. The trip to Stillwater, Okla., will come in the regular-season finale March 9.

Kansas, meanwhile, has a challenging matchup Monday night at Iowa State.

“We’ve got to play at a high level,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve still got a couple of games. If we keep doing what we do, we should be all right.”

The Wildcats first try to earn their seventh consecutive win over the Red Raiders and improve to 16-1 at home. Texas Tech enters this game having lost eight in a row overall and six straight on the road, including an 86-66 drubbing at Iowa State on Saturday.

With 20 points, Josh Gray was one of the bright spots in the rout. The freshman guard, averaging 10.0 points, had a season-high 26 in a home loss to Oklahoma on Wednesday.

Gray had 10 points against visiting Kansas State on Feb. 5 and Jordan Tolbert had a season-high 19, but Texas Tech fell 68-59. McGruder led the Wildcats with 18 points and helped his team post a 38-20 rebounding advantage with nine boards.

Kansas State held Red Raiders leading scorer Jaye Crockett (12.3 ppg) to four points, his second-fewest in any game this season.

The Wildcats led by only four points early in the second half before pulling away with an 11-2 run in that win, but they haven’t had to sweat as much in their three straight home victories over the Red Raiders. They’ve won those games by an average of 21.6 points.

Kansas State shot just 30.0 percent – its worst performance in the past two seasons – the last time Texas Tech visited Manhattan on Feb. 7, 2012, but held the Red Raiders to 28.9 percent in a 65-46 victory.