KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State coach Bruce Weber challenged his team at halftime to show some emotion.
It overflowed once the final buzzer sounded.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats had frantically rallied from an 18-point deficit against No. 13 seed La Salle, even taking the lead late in the game. But a sudden cold streak at the worst of times, along with three critical foul shots by the Explorer's Jerrell Wright, left Kansas State stinging from a 63-61 loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"I asked them at halftime to compete, and they said, `Coach, we want to win,'" said Weber, his own voice cracking. "We didn't make it. It's sad, sad for our guys."
Wright, who scored a game-high 21 points for La Salle (22-9), made the first of his two clutch free throws to take a 62-61 lead with 30 seconds left in the game.
Kansas State's Jordan Henriquez missed in the paint at the other end, and Wright was quickly fouled, making 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, and the Explorers jumped off their bench to celebrate.
"They made the plays down the stretch and we didn't," said Weber, who decided to let his guys freelance on the final possession rather than calling a timeout and designing a play.
As soon as Rodriguez got boxed in, Weber said he tried to get that timeout – but the referees couldn't hear him over the roar of the crowd.
"I guess it's my fault," he said. "I waited too long."
Ramon Galloway scored 15 of his 19 points in the first half, and Sam Mills added 10 points for La Salle, which beat Boise State in one of the First Four games just to reach Kansas City, and now has won two games in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1955.
The Explorers will play No. 12 seed Mississippi, which knocked off fifth-seeded Wisconsin 57-46 earlier in the day, for a spot in the round of 16 in a suddenly shredded West Region.
"We're not playing with house money. That's not at all how we'd every think," said La Salle coach John Giannini. "We want to win every game."
The Wildcats certainly came to Kansas City expecting to win at least one.
"It's the worst feeling in the world," said leading scorer Rodney McGruder, who finished with 12 points. "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."
Henriquez and Shane Southwell scored 17 points each for Kansas State, which won a share of its first Big 12 title in 36 years, advancing to the title game of the conference tournament – and will no doubt remember its loss to La Salle just as vividly as all those accomplishments.
"We knew how good they were," said Rodriguez, who revealed that he's been dealing with a wrist injury that will require surgery soon. "We knew how dangerous they were. We still know we're a better team than them, but I guess that they deserve it and we have to give them credit."
Giannini was worried that La Salle 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, when Kansas State headed to the locker room for final instructions.
Evidently, the Explorers 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 partisan 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.
Everything turned 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.