The game is played at such a rapid pace, at this level and in this setting, that it can break even the sturdiest of hearts and minds.
Kansas State freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez would not break on Thursday against Southern Mississippi.
Not in his first NCAA Tournament appearance. Not with this much on the line.
“The game moves so fast that you can’t think about mistakes,” Rodriguez said. “You have to keep pushing.”
With Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez putting the Wildcats on their shoulders for most of the game, Rodriguez provided the lift necessary to get K-State over the hump in a 70-64 first-round victory.
Rodriguez finished with 13 points and four assists in 27 minutes. Rodriguez was also able to shake off three turnovers that might have flustered him early in the season.
“I think he played really well,” junior teammate Martavious Irving said. “(Rodriguez) had a couple of moments where things got shaky, but he played through it.
“On the road, he’s my roommate, so the last couple of days I’ve been telling him to just treat this like a normal game; don’t worry about the atmosphere or the NCAA Tournament or any of that stuff.”
Rodriguez, who averages eight points and three assists, was at his best when the game was on the line.
With just more than 3 minutes to play and K-State leading 60-55, Rodriguez found Gipson over the top of the Southern Miss defense on an alley-oop that Gipson turned into a layup.
“He put that one up there kind of high, didn’t he?” Gipson said, laughing. “Maybe he thought I was Jordan — I don’t know. I was a little surprised he saw me when he did … he made the play.”
Then Rodriguez coughed the ball up at midcourt, and the Golden Eagles’ Darnell Dodson took it the other way for a dunk that cut K-State’s lead to three, 62-59, with just more than 2 minutes to play.
Rodriguez answered by driving the length of the court and slicing through the Southern Miss defense, hanging in the air for a reverse layup.
He then sank five of six free throws in the final minute.
“I’ll never stop playing the way I do, trying to make positive things happen,” Rodriguez said. “When I stepped to the line late, I thought, ‘These are clutch.’ … I don’t want to let down my teammates.”