Kansas State climbed the mountain, but it couldn’t stay on top.
Perhaps that’s the best analogy for the Wildcats’ 63-61 loss to La Salle on Friday in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 4-seed K-State experienced a wide range of emotions at the Sprint Center. First the embarrassment of falling 19 points behind a No. 13 seed and trailing 44-26 at halftime. Then the hope of a comeback and the confidence of a second-half lead. But the strange game ended in disappointment.
A successful season — 27 victories, the first conference championship since 1977 — ended with two frustrating final possessions and an upset loss.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” said senior Rodney McGruder, who had 13 points and six rebounds. “It’s the last time I’ll play a game in a K-State uniform, the last time I’ll be on a team with some of my teammates I have now. It just hurts to go out the way we did.”
The Wildcats were favorites and well-rested while the Explorers reached Kansas City the hard way, beating fellow 13 seed Boise State on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. K-State was also playing close to home with a partisan crowd.
But all that went out the window when La Salle came out hot. The Explorers made 58.1 percent of their shots before halftime, frustrating the Wildcats with pick-and-roll plays and deep three-pointers.
Trailing by 18 at halftime, K-State did some soul-searching and came to a realization.
“Let’s not die by killing ourselves,” said sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez. “If we’re going to die, we might as well die giving everything we’ve got and giving ourselves the chance to win the game. That’s what we did, we just didn’t take it.”
They came close. K-State made the second half as lopsided as La Salle had made the first. The Wildcats scored the first eight points and forced the Explorers out of their comfort zone by making defensive adjustments that included Rodriguez guarding Ramon Galloway, who scored 19 points, and Jordan Henriquez staying on the floor except for quick breathers. It also helped that Shane Southwell, who scored 17 points, was making shots.
The crowd erupted when McGruder hit a put-back layup with 7:09 remaining to give K-State its first lead, 57-56.
“We were right where we wanted to be,” Rodriguez said. “We had a lot of energy. We believed that we can do it. We were being ourselves as a team. They had a hard time scoring.”
After making 18 of 31 shots in the first half, La Salle made three of 18 the rest of the way and didn’t make a basket under the 7:56 mark.
“As good as we were in the first half, Kansas State was that good in the second half,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “It was tough to get a good look.”
Henriquez, who finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, made a layup that put the Wildcats ahead 60-58 with 4:54 remaining, but it was their final basket.
“That’s why you don’t get yourself down by that much, because it’s hard to overcome it even if you do come back,” senior guard Martavious Irving said. “If we would have played the way we did in the second half from the beginning, it wouldn’t have even been a game.”
K-State stopped doing what had helped get it back into the game. Instead of pushing the ball up court and working the ball inside to Henriquez or taking the first quality shot available, the Wildcats slowed down, taking shots late in possessions.
Some of that can be attributed to fatigue and pressure, but the final 5 minutes featured nothing but free throws.
“I don’t think we tried to slow it up or anything,” Weber said. “We tried to push it a couple times. We didn’t get much out of it. You just have to do a better job. You have to give them some credit. They defended us a lot better. They jammed Angel a little bit and he was impatient a couple times.”
Rodriguez did struggle. The outside shots, driving layups and crisp passes he made throughout the season weren’t there. He was held to two points, four assists and three turnovers. McGruder was also off his game, making five of 17 shots.
The final minutes included McGruder missing two shots from close range and two open jumpers. Irving missed a layup, and Henriquez missed a driving, off-balance shot with 13 seconds to play.
Still, the Wildcats had a chance to win on the final possession. After Jerrell Wright, who scored a game-high 21 points, made a free throw to put La Salle ahead 63-61 with 9 seconds remaining, Rodriguez brought the ball up court and ran a play that was supposed to end with McGruder taking a potential game-winner. But the Explorers defended him well, and Rodriguez tried to create something. He drove to around the right side, got behind the side of the basket and missed badly at the buzzer.
“It was a crazy shot,” Rodriguez said. “I was just hoping I would have some luck and it would go in.”
Weber realized Rodriguez was heading for failure and said he should have called a timeout right away. Instead, he tried to call timeout with about 2 seconds remaining, and the official near him didn’t grant one.
“(Once Rodriguez) went into all the people, I tried to call timeout,” Weber said. “It was my fault. I waited too long.”
Weber shook his head in disbelief and trudged through the handshake line. K-State players followed, with some appearing inconsolable on their way to the locker room.
“We missed opportunities. I missed them,” Weber said. “There were a lot of plays and a lot of opportunities down the stretch that we didn’t take advantage of.”
Their season came to a bittersweet end, and all they felt was frustration.
“It’s just bitter,” Irving said. “The Big 12 championship and all that stuff is cool and fine, but we wanted to make a run at the big one. Now we can’t.”