Kansas State had big plans for this postseason. The Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament ranked #11 in the country with a share of the Big 12 conference championship in their back pocket and one of the best records in school history to complement a number four seed. Waiting like a snake in the grass was an underrated La Salle team that couldn’t miss early in the game and did just enough in the second half to thwart a comeback attempt and hold on for a 63-61 victory and date with #13 seed Ole Miss.
Nothing seemed to fall K-State’s way in the first half. Everything fell the way La Salle wanted it to. The Explorers started the game by hitting their first three shots – all threes. They completed six of eleven threes in the first 20 minutes, good for over 50 percent while executing superb ball movement. The four-guard team outrebounded K-State and destroyed the Wildcats in assist:turnover ratio. La Salle even got breaks they didn’t have to work for. On at least two instances the Wildcats simply threw the ball away. La Salle was playing a team out of sync, out of place, and seemingly out of time. K-State entered the locker room down 44-26 at halftime.
The 44 point allowance was insane. When Michigan scored 71 to beat K-State, the Wolverines had 29 in the first half. La Salle had 44. It’s insane. Yet it happened. And my vocabulary simply does not possess the reservoir to describe (in a family-friendly manner) how outrageous was the notion of being down 18 points at halftime to La Salle. The only thing I can do is angrily bold letters. Yet it happened.
The second half also happened. K-State stormed back with a vengeance straight out the gate, scoring 14 of the half’s first 17 points while using the tall Jordan Henriquez to exploit La Salle’s underutilization of F Jerrell Wright (remember this name), who spent much of the second half on the bench with four fouls. Henriquez had one of the best games of his playing career in his final performance wearing the K-State uniform. The senior scored 17 points, had five blocks, pulled down 12 rebounds, and was 7-10 from the field. Several of those were second half dunks, as Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez discovered they could just lob the ball in the basket’s general direction, and their usually defensive-minded giant would throw it down.
The only aspect missing from Henriquez’s game was free throw shooting. A notoriously inconsistent free throw shooter, Henriquez got to the line eight times as the Explorers attempted to stop him by fouling. He made only three. Going 5-8 from the line ties the game and gives K-State the ball in overtime with all of the game’s momentum at its back. This is to take nothing away from Henriquez – he had a tremendous game, has been a valuable addition to the team throughout his career, and as of this writing is probably stuck in an emotional locker room forced to think, “what if…” The entire team finished 9-17 from the line, while La Salle was 14-16. That was the difference in this game.
Rodney McGruder, another senior playing his last game, was his typically productive self. McGruder played all 40 minutes; he did not receive a rest. He scored 13 points, had six rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block. He hit a clutch three to fuel a second half run, but also struggled mightily in the first half and finished 5-17 on the night.
Will Spradling played only 17 minutes, and appears to still be struggling to recover from the chest injury suffered against Texas a month ago. In his place, senior Martavious Irving played 27 minutes and contributed two points, two rebounds, and an assist. Shane Southwell provided 17 points, four rebounds, an assist, a steal, and one block. La Salle’s largest lead of the day was 19. K-State’s was two.
So do you remember that name you were supposed to remember? It was Jerrell Wright’s, the player that spent much of the second half on the bench with four fouls. It was also Wright that hammered the final nails in K-State’s coffin. Wright had three of his 21 points in the last 30 seconds, two of which gave La Salle the lead at 62-61 with half a minute left to play. Wright was already 6-6 from the field today, and finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks.
Wright only had 20 points and seven rebounds with 12 seconds left in the game. An Henriquez miss gave Wright the opportunity for his last rebound rebound. McGruder fouled Wright, who made his first free throw but missed the second giving K-State one final shot with eight seconds left and two points down. However, Angel Rodriguez’s last-second heave fell short and sent La Salle on to its next dance partner.