On paper, things looked to favor the Kansas State Wildcats Friday. They were getting to play the LaSalle Explorers from the Atlantic 10 Conference, who had to play a first round play-in game Wednesday night, and the Wildcats were getting to play close to home in Kansas City. LaSalle beat Boise State in Dayton, then had to travel to Kansas City late Wednesday. Unfortunately for Kansas State, they don’t play these games on paper.
The Wildcats started out a little flat right from the opening tip and the Explorers came out fired up and hot. LaSalle jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead before K-State woke up and realized they were in a game. Even with the wake up call, they couldn’t slow the hot Explorer shooters. The Wildcats started out cold, only hitting 1 from 8 three pointers in the half, while LaSalle drained 6 of 11 from long range. The Explorers shot nearly 60% in the first 20 minutes (18-31) in building an 18 point first half league.
Coach Bruce Weber had his squad ready for the second half. The Wildcats played with a fierce intensity on defense, flying at the LaSalle shooters from all angles. K-State started hitting shots as they began to chip away at that big 18-point deficit. Their tough defensive play and solid work in the paint helped the Wildcats claw all way back and they took the lead 57-56 on a Rodney McGruder lay-up with 7:12 to go in the game. Kansas State would only make one more field goal the rest of the game.
LaSalle only netted 3 field goals (3-18) in the second half and their last 7 points were all scored by Jerrell Wright from the line. It was just enough. Even though Wright missed his only shot of the day (6-6 from the floor, 9-10 from the line), a free throw with 9.6 seconds to go, KSU was unable to to capitalize. Kansas State did not get off a very good shot at the buzzer. A closely guarded, running jump shot by Angel Rodriguez did not quite make it to the basket as time expired. It appeared as if Weber was trying to call a time out but he waited too long and couldn’t get the official’s attention as the play unfolded.
The loss masked a terrific game by Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, who had 17 points, 12 rebounds, and was a force on defense with 5 blocked shots. Shane Southwell also scored 17, and McGruder added 13. Angel Rodriguez had a bad day, going 0-6 from the field and scored his only 2 points from the line. Jerrell Wright was the star for LaSalle with 21 points despite a blow to the head in the second half. Ramon Galloway netted 19, most in the first half, and Sam Mills chipped in with 10.
LaSalle won the game from the line shooting 88% (14-16), while K-State did not help their cause at all from the free throw line, shooting only 53% (9-17). Kansas State only committed 9 turnovers but only forced 8. The Wildcats lack of intensity at the start of the game certainly didn’t get the game off to a good start and despite a noble effort in the second half staging a terrific comeback, they just ran out of steam in the last seven minutes of the game.
The loss is disappointing but it does not take away from this season’s accomplishments. Kansas State won its first conference championship since 1977 and finished as the runner up in the Big 12 tournament. Rodney McGruder finished his career as a conference First Teamer and had a magnificent season and career as a Wildcat. It was a tough finish but the Kansas State Wildcats had a terrific season.