By Joseph Santoliquito
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CBS) — March Madness is geared toward the unexpected. Those surprises. The upsets. The kind of magic that La Salle seems to be spinning right before our very eyes.
It looked like the Explorers would blow out No. 4 seed Kansas State, then just like that it looked as if La Salle would blow a huge first-half lead. But the Explorers found a way to win, 63-61, to advance to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament against No. 12 seed Mississippi on Sunday.
La Salle’s Jerrell Wright supplied the magic for the Explorers at the Sprint Center Friday afternoon. He finished with a game-high 21 points, including hitting three of four free throws in the last :30 of the game.
Wright was 6-for-6 from the floor and 9 of 10 on the line. Ramon Galloway closed with 19 points, while La Salle’s defense held Kansas State to 37-percent shooting in the first half (11 for 29).
“As good as we were in the first half, Kansas State was that good in the second half,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “We didn’t turn it over. We got some decent shots. Their big man blocked a lot of them. It was tough to get a good look, but at least we didn’t turn it over. The other thing that was huge was Jerrell Wright. He made some gigantic free throws.”
La Salle burst out to an early 6-0 lead and anything the Explorers wanted to do, they did. La Salle opened the lead to 28-13 on 11 of 20 shooting.
Kansas State didn’t reach double figures until about 10 minutes left in the half. K-State made a mere 37-percent from the floor and a horrid 12-percent from three-point range in the first half (1-for-8).
Then it was hang on time.
“Sometimes our quickness takes people by surprise, and we had just enough cushion to last,” Giannini said.
Wright was transcendent. He averaged 10.4 points a game this season and had that by halftime.
“There was a lot of pressure, but Jerrell’s poise and focus carried the day,” Giannini said. “We just kept challenging our guys defensively and kept saying that we’d be all right, and just get out defense back, we’d win this game.”
With 7:12 left in the game, Rodney McGruder’s layup gave K-State its first lead of the game, 57-56. The Wildcats converted 12 of their first 17 shots in the second half—a complete turnaround from the first half.
It was Wright that tied the game at 60-60 of a pair of free throws with 4:18 on the clock. Kansas State never scored a basket in the final 4:51.
Giannini refused to say this is gravy time, considering many didn’t think they would get this far.
“We’re not playing with house money,” Giannini said. “We’re playing to win every game. We wanted to be one of those teams do well. People want o be where we are right now, and I’m telling you, everyone is good.”
La Salle is showing the rest of the country that they are—and they are.