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January 13, 2012A little less than 48 hours after No. 18 Kansas State suffered a heartbreaking 75-73 loss to No. 4 Baylor on Tuesday, the Wildcats reconvened for the first time on the very court where their hopes of attaining multiple program firsts -- but most importantly, a crucial home victory -- fell just short to the blast of the game's final buzzer.
The circumstances entering practice were different than those surrounding a 67-48 loss to No. 15 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 4 -- a loss in the Big 12 Conference opener that the Wildcats responded to with a 75-59 win over No. 6 Missouri last Saturday.
The loss to the Bears just felt different, but head coach Frank Martin said Thursday's practice was "good." And that's a welcome start for the Wildcats, 12-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12, which hopes to bounce back against Oklahoma, 10-5 and 0-3, on Saturday in Norman, Okla.
"It's a lot more difficult to bounce back from the Baylor loss than it was from the KU loss because we weren't any good against KU and were embarrassed," Martin said. "We tried against Baylor. We made mistakes at the end of the game, but our guys tried. Our guys prepared well and we tried and just couldn't get it done. When that happens it's a little tougher to come back from. And you add to that we were off yesterday so it allows that feeling to linger in their bodies a little longer than it needs to.
"We were good. I was proud of the way our guys came out today."
Yes, the personnel changes and the opponents change, but historically K-State hasn't allowed a close defeat to beat it twice. It has gone 9-0 over the last two-plus seasons when losing by 10 or fewer points. That includes its only non-conference loss -- a 85-80 double-overtime defeat to West Virginia in Wichita on Dec. 8 that served as the Wildcats' lone blemish prior to traveling to Lawrence for the league opener.
It demonstrates a brand of mental toughness that Martin continues to appreciate about his squads. Asked if this group appears mentally tough, Martin replied, "Yes."
"They're kids," he continued. "Today, our younger guys, their feelings were still hurt. Our older guys, they'd been through it. They understand the season is a grind and you're going to have moments where you try your rear end off and it's not quite good enough. That's the difference there. That's why experience is so vital.
"What happens is when you're real young and your feelings are hurt you're kind of finding an excuse to want to stay down and for people to feel sorry for you. When you start thinking that way, you're getting ready to get tapped again. That's what was encouraging about today's practice was that those upper classmen were really upbeat and energetic and they got those young guys to buy in and as practice went on they got better and better."
The loss proved difficult for various reasons, most immediate because in the ultra-competitive Big 12 it becomes vital to win home contests.
Martin briefly lamented a few of the other opportunities that got away Tuesday night -- historical nuggets that he said he didn't share with the team prior to the game.
"It would've been the longest winning streak ever at Bramlage Coliseum. It would've been the first time in the Big 12 that anybody beat two undefeated ranked conference opponents consecutively," he said. "We had a lot of opportunities to do firsts and we didn't do it. But you've got to be pretty good to put yourself in that spot. It's over and done with. We can't dwell on that right now.
"After they do things then I tell them what they've accomplished, but I don't try and tell them (before games). We should be focused on winning a game. Our goal is to win that Big 12. After they reach certain milestones as a team, after they do it I'll say, 'Hey, just to let you guys know ?'"
Junior guard/forward Rodney McGruder has experienced every one of those close losses during his time at K-State. The 6-foot-5, 204-pounder poured in a career-high 30 points on 10 of 14 shooting from the floor during a game-high 36 minutes against the Bears.
He said "practice went well" and that "guys really got after each other."
"Frank just didn't want for us to feel down, to feel discouraged because we lost the game, and just to know that we had the game and that there are things we could've done to win but we let slip away. Now we have to worry about Oklahoma and the game is over with."
Martin is still a remarkable 100-4 when leading with five minutes left in a game. K-State won all 10 times this season when holding the lead in the final five minutes. Junior center Jordan Henriquez sank a pair of free throws for a 71-67 lead with 4:11 remaining but the Bears tied it at 71-71 before senior forward Quincy Acy gave them the lead for good.
Freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez, who had 17 points against Southern Illinois in a game earlier this season, combined for went scoreless against Kansas and had three points against the Tigers before he had seven points in 12 minutes against the Bears.
For all of the growth the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Rodriguez has shown throughout the season, he experienced a painful growth moment in the final three minutes, but in particular in the final seconds, when Baylor senior guard A.J. Walton knocked the ball from Rodriguez and out of bounds as he drove to the hoop to tie the score with three seconds left.
"Experience teaches you to keep the ball on the side of the body where the defender isn't and he beat A.J. knowing A.J. was behind his right shoulder and he brought the ball back to his right hand," Martin said. "A.J. Walton reaches now on the side he's at and knocks the ball loose. Experience -- you've got to keep the ball on the side of your body and that way the only thing he can grab is your arm and it's a foul. On that play he made a mistake and brought the ball back to the side of the defender."
Martin admitted, "I think those last three minutes hurt (Rodriguez's) feelings the way he started practice today."
"He came out like a little kid that lost his dog but our upperclassmen helped him out and got him going again," Martin added. "Angel is a good player. He's no different than Jacob Pullen was as a freshman. Jacob went through the same things as a freshman. He had great moments and then he had other moments that weren't so great. He's a fighter and he's going to be just fine. It's not as easy as they think it is when they get out of high school. They always think it's going to be a little easier."
McGruder, the team leader, stepped in during practice to help Rodriguez and the other younger players rebound.
"I just encourage them," McGruder said. "There are a lot of games left in the season. If you let that game discourage you then how will you prepare yourself for the following games? I just try to encourage them a little bit."
McGruder believes the Wildcats demonstrated their mental toughness to bounce back already once in this league season.
"It showed after the Kansas game," he said. "We got beat down at Kansas and we came back and fought hard against Missouri."
"Now we have to see where we're at after this Baylor loss," he continued. "That was a really tough loss here against Baylor. We have to see where we are at Oklahoma."
Historically, the Wildcats have responded with success.
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