KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — John Giannini kept calling timeouts as La Salle’s big lead kept slipping away, an 18-point halftime advantage wiped out by fourth-ranked Kansas State’s frantic comeback.
The coach’s message every time was simple: Keep playing defense.
The Explorers finally answered his challenge.
Jerrell Wright made three foul shots in the final 30 seconds, and the No. 13 seed from the Atlantic 10 buckled down on defense in the closing minutes, allowing the Explorers to polish off a 63-61 upset win Friday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“Every timeout, every time we came in, he was riding us on defense,” said Ramon Galloway, who finished with 19 points for La Salle. “We had a good margin, and they came back and actually took the lead. We had to stick together, dig down deep and get some stops.”
The Wildcats trailed 44-26 at halftime, but didn’t make another field goal after Jordan Henriquez’s layup with 4:54 remaining in the game. In fact, Kansas State only managed one more point — a free throw by the 7-footer with 2:25 left on the clock — the rest of the way.
That gave the Explorers (22-9) the window they needed.
Wright, who scored a game-high 21 points, made his first two clutch free throws to give La Salle a 62-61 lead with 30 seconds left. Henriquez missed in the paint at the other end, and then Wright made the first of two more foul shots with 9.6 seconds to go.
The Wildcats (27-8) raced down court, looking for a tying basket, but guard Angel Rodriguez got hung up in the corner near the Kansas State bench. His off-balance shot over the corner of the backboard missed everything, deflating a partisan crowd that packed the Sprint Center.
“They made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who let his guys freelance on the final possession rather than calling a designed play.
Weber said he tried to call a timeout with Rodriguez boxed in, but the referees didn’t hear him with the crowd roaring.
“I guess it’s my fault,” he said. “I waited too long.”
Sam Mills was credited with shutting down Rodriguez on the game’s final possession.
The junior guard also had 10 points for La Salle, which beat Boise State in one of the First Four games Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, caught a late plane to Kansas City and has now won two games in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1955.
“We’re not playing with house money. That’s not at all how we’d every think,” said Giannini, whose program hadn’t even been to the NCAA tournament since 1992. “We want to win every game.”
The next one will come against No. 12 seed Mississippi, which knocked off fifth-seeded Wisconsin 57-46 earlier in the day in a suddenly shredded West Region.
“We don’t have a chance to be tired or sore,” Galloway said. “We’re ready for our chance.”
Henriquez and Shane Southwell scored 17 points each for Kansas State, which managed to climb back in the game in the second half by holding La Salle to 3-for-18 shooting after the break.
Senior guard Rodney McGruder, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, finished with 12 points.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” he said. “It’s the last time I’ll play a game in the K-State uniform, and the last time I’ll be on a team with some of the teammates I have now. It just hurts to go out the way we did.”
Giannini was worried his team would be weary after beating Boise State two days ago, so his guys hardly practiced Thursday. They made up for it by putting up extra shots before the game, remaining on the court when Kansas State headed to the locker room for final instructions.
Evidently, they got into quite the rhythm.
Galloway hit the first of his three first-half 3-pointers on La Salle’s opening possession, and he was followed in quick succession by Mills and Tyreek Duren, whose own shots from beyond the arc effectively silenced a crowd that came dressed mostly in purple and white.
Weber kept calling timeouts to implore his team to settle down, but nothing seemed to stick.
The Explorers pushed their lead to 35-16 late in the first half, and even when the Wildcats made back-to-back baskets — and their subdued fans started to stir — La Salle’s veteran backcourt was there to answer with a slicing layup or a fall-away jumper.
La Salle shot 58 percent and committed two turnovers in building a 44-26 halftime lead, while the Wildcats went 1 for 8 from beyond the arc and turned it over seven times.
Everything turned in the second half.
Those open 3-pointers the Explorers had been pouring in were replaced with brick shots and air balls, their weary legs starting to show. And those lousy passes and missed layups by Kansas State were replaced with crisp feeds for open looks around the basket.
Henriquez, the Wildcats’ 7-footer, started to take advantage of a 6-inch advantage in the paint, scoring six points during their 20-5 run to open the half. When he checked out, bruising post player Thomas Gipson kept the pressure on, demoralizing the smaller Explorers.
“As good as we were in the first half, Kansas State was that good in the second half,” Giannini said. “They were terrific in the second half.”
Gipson’s basket in the paint drew Kansas State within 56-55, and then a put-back by McGruder gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game with 7:10 remaining.
Wright’s two foul shots with just over 4 minutes left in the game knotted it 60-all, and Henriquez’s free throw with 2:25 remaining gave Kansas State the lead. But McGruder missed a closely guarded jumper on the Wildcats’ next trip, and then rattled out a 3-pointer.
The Explorers’ defense helped them finish off a memorable upset.
“It came down to individual battles,” Giannini said, “and our guys stepped up.”