KANSAS CITY, Mo. — La Salle found enough energy when it needed it most.
The 13th seeded Explorers let an 18-point halftime lead slip away in the first 13 minutes of the second half, but scored the final five points to defeat fourth-seeded Kansas State 63-61 in front of 19,301 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Sprint Center on Friday.
“It was a game of two halves,” La Salle head coach John Giannini said. “We had enough of a cushion, and Jerrell [Wright] stepped up with a big stop to win the game.”
Kansas State (27-9) outscored the La Salle 31-12 to start the second half, grabbing a 57-56 lead with 7:12 left in the second half. The pro-Kansas State crowd seemed to give the Wildcats energy. But the Wildcats managed just one field goal the remainder of the game.
“We changed the way we were guarding the ball screens,” Giannini said of what it took to stop Kansas State’s run. “What was really hurting us was the pick and roll. It sounds simple, but if you have good guards and a good big guy, it’s really hard to guard.
“At that point, it comes down to one-on-battles. Guys got individual stops and grabbed rebounds.”
Wright grabbed a defensive rebound with the Explorers clinging to a one-point lead in the final 15 seconds. He also scored the final seven points from the line for La Salle (23-9), which advanced to play Mississippi in Sunday’s third round. He had struggled from the line in the Explorers’ First Four game against Boise State, going just 1-of-5. He said some words from his coach made a big difference.
“Coach told me to have the same form and think about it going in,” he said.
Giannini is a former University of Maine coach who guided the Black Bears’ men’s basketball team to its only two 20-win seasons.
The Black Bears went 24-7 in 1999-2000 and 20-10 in 2003-2004.
He went 125-111 in his eight seasons at Maine including a 75-65 mark in America East.
He led Maine to America East championship game appearances in two of his last three seasons: 2001-02 and 2003-04.
The Black Bears’ America East finals appearance in 2001-2002 was the school’s first since 1994.
The 2003-2004 season was the last time Maine reached an America East final.
Wright led the 13th-seeded Explorers with 21 points. Ramon Galloway added 19 for La Salle. Shane Southwell and Jordan Henriquez had 17 points apiece for Kansas State.
La Salle is the team that had reason to be sluggish. The Explorers had just 40 hours between the end of their victory over Boise State Wednesday night at the First Four in Dayton and the tip-off to Friday’s game.
“I’m good,” Wright said. “I’m excited. I’m ready to play the next game against Ole Miss.”
When the Wildcats took a 60-58 lead with 4:54 left, it was the Explorers who had life left. The Wildcats missed their last eight shots in the game, including Angel Rodriguez’s baseline jumper just before the buzzer.
“We all figured we had a heck of a game on our hands,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. “They’re very talented. They come at you in a lot of different ways. Obviously they jumped on us.
“I challenged them at halftime to have some emotion to compete. We gave it our best shot. We had a chance at the end. It seemed like each guy had a shot or a free throw down the stretch and we didn’t make it.”
The Wildcats stormed out of the gate in the second half, cutting an 18-point deficit to 44-34 with an 8-0 run. After a basket by Wright extended the lead back to 12 points, Kansas State continued it rally. The Wildcats outscored La Salle 9-3 and had the margin down to just six points by the 11:56 mark.
After trading a few baskets, the Wildcats finally grabbed their first lead of the game at the 7:12 mark when Rodney McGruder tipped in a Southwell miss.
But the Wildcats couldn’t shake the Explorers. K-State’s largest lead of the game was two points, and when the Wildcats suddenly went cold from the field, victory eluded them.
“There was no set play,” McGruder said of the final play. “We were just trying to make a play, but we came up short.”
La Salle jumped out quickly in the first half, scoring the first six points on two 3-pointers and grabbing a 24-9 lead by the second media timeout. The Explorers led by as many 19 points at 35-16, and led 44-26 at the half.
The Wildcats couldn’t do much right. They were 11-of-29 from the field, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range. Southwell led the Wildcats with nine points at intermission.
Meanwhile, La Salle was torrid from the field. The Explorers hit 58 percent of their first-half shots (18-of-31), and they were 6-of-11 (55 percent) from long-range. They were led by Galloway, who had 15 points. Wright also had 10 points.
The Wildcats were 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4 to 1). But in the first half, they had four assists and seven turnovers, while La Salle had 10 assists and just two turnovers.
NOTES: This game was a rematch of the first round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament. All-American Mitch Richmond led Kansas State past La Salle and All-American Lionel Simmons, 66-53. Kansas State advanced to the Elite 8 that season. … The Explorers notched a second win in the tournament for the first time since 1955, when they reached the championship game in defense of their national title. Kansas State was in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year, 27th overall. The Wildcats stand 33-31 all time, including reaching four Final Fours and the 1951 national championship game.