KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There were circumstances that would have sunk most teams with La Salle sprinting early, crawling late but doing enough to live another day.
The 13th-seeded Explorers continued their postseason run with Friday’s 63-61 win over No. 4 Kansas State before 18,301 partisan Wildcats fans at the Sprint Center.
La Salle (23-9) meets SEC tournament champion and 12th-seeded Mississippi in Sunday’s third-round game.
After a first half in which La Salle led by as many as 19 points and held an 18-point advantage at intermission, the Explorers held on for dear life by surviving both the Wildcats and their boisterous purple-clad fans.
“Throughout the game we tried to keep calm,” said La Salle guard Sam Mills, who scored 10 points and had the defensive play of the game. “We knew they would take their punch and we had to deal with it.”
In the second half, it was more like one body blow after another.
La Salle led 44-26 at halftime in what arguably was their best 20 minutes of the season, especially considering the competition.
The Explorers, who shot 63 percent from the field in Wednesday’s first-round win over Boise State, were 18 for 31 (58.1 percent) from the field and 6 of 11 from beyond the arc.
“La Salle comes at you in a number of ways,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. “Obviously they jumped on us.”
Using the inspired play of 6-foot-11 Jordan Henriquez, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, the Wildcats stormed back and eventually led by two with just over six minutes remaining.
Kansas State had the momentum and the crowd was going crazy, but La Salle countered with Jerrell Wright. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 21 points, hitting all six field goal attempts, and he added eight rebounds. He was 9 for 10 from the foul line, after going 1 for 5 against Boise State to enter the game a 60 percent free throw shooter.
“I am not going to say I am used to doing this but my team expected me to do this and I expected myself to do it,” Wright said. “This was a game I had to show my talent today and it came through.”
Wright scored the Explorers’ last nine points and he gave La Salle a 62-61 lead by hitting two free throws with 30 seconds left.
Henriquez then missed a jumper on the next possession, Wright got the rebound and was fouled, making one of two, extending the lead to 63-61 with nine seconds left.
That gave the Wildcats one final chance. Weber said he tried to call a timeout with 2.2 seconds left, but he couldn’t be heard by the officials.
“I yelled as loud as I could but we didn’t get the call,” he said.
So point guard Angel Rodriguez drove the baseline and missed badly on a 6-foot floater with 1.6 seconds left.
In defending Rodriguez, Mills said he wasn’t trying to force the sophomore point guard to the baseline, it just happened that way.
“I was reacting to what he was doing,” Mills said. “He did a little crossover so I tried to turn him that way and was able to make the stop.”
It ended an impressive defensive sequence in which La Salle held Kansas State to just one point in the final 4 minutes and 54 seconds.
“We had to change the way we were guarding the ball screen,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “If you look at what was really hurting us, it was the pick and roll.”
So La Salle, which made only three second-half field goals, survived, showing the sort of mental toughness that has characterized this team all season, one that has been extended longer than many had forecast.
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