As Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez tried to drive baseline during the last possession of his team's NCAA tournament matchup with La Salle on Friday, Wildcats coach Bruce Weber already regretted not stopping the clock to draw up a final play.
A frantic Weber unsuccessfully tried to get the referees' attention to call timeout with about two seconds to go, a sure sign things weren't going as planned.
Rodriguez wanted to free himself via a Thomas Gipson screen to take game-tying shot, but they botched the timing of the play and the La Salle defender was able to get over the top with ease. Walled off from the rim and lacking any other option but to shoot, Rodriguez hoisted up a baseline prayer from behind the backboard that predictably failed to draw iron, condemning fourth-seeded Kansas State to a 63-61 upset loss to the 13th-seeded Explorers.
"All year we've just went and tried to make a play down the stretch," Weber said. "Once I saw it was bogged up, I tried to call timeout. I know it's tough on the officials because they're focusing on the game. I was sitting right with them. I looked at the clock at 2.2. I yelled it as loud as I could, but we didn't get the call. Sometimes things aren't meant to be."
Kansas State's setback was especially crushing because the Wildcats had to deliver a nearly perfect second half just to have a chance to win the game at all. They rallied from 18 points down at halftime behind superior interior play and relentless defense, holding La Salle to just three made field goals in the second half and to zero in the final 7:55.
La Salle won anyway because it sank seven of eight free throws down the stretch and did not fold when Kansas State took its first lead on a Rodney McGruder layup with just over seven minutes to play. The Explorers limited the Wildcats to only one point in the final 4:55, ending an otherwise successful first season for Weber in the Little Apple highlighted by a co-Big 12 title shared with rival Kansas.
For both La Salle and its conference, the victory was monumental.
An Explorers team that hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 1992 suddenly finds itself a win over No. 12 seed Ole Miss away from making the round of 16 for the first time since 1955. La Salle was fortunate to even make the field at all and had to beat Boise State in a First Four game on Wednesday night just to guarantee itself a crack at Kansas State.
The two victories by the Explorers improve the Atlantic 10 to 6-0 in the NCAA tournament so far, a huge coup for a league in need of some good news as a result of the impending departures of Butler, Xavier and Temple. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs and ninth-seeded Owls are two of the other Atlantic 10 teams joining La Salle in the round of 32, as are fifth-seeded VCU and fourth-seeded Saint Louis.
Still, the biggest surprise is certainly La Salle, a team that celebrated just making the field of 68 as vociferously as many teams do after advancing to a Final Four. The Explorers may not have been expected to be an NCAA tournament team this season, but they're certainly proving they belong.
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