KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Let’s get this part out of the way up front.
First, La Salle never thought for a moment it was playing with house money in the NCAA Tournament because it had to make a side trip Wednesday to Dayton, Ohio, where it defeated Boise State in a First Four game.
“That’s not at all the way we would ever think,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “That would be a ridiculous way to think.”
Neither are the Explorers feeling particularly tired because they didn’t get into Kansas City until 3 a.m. Thursday.
“It’s March Madness,” La Salle forward Rohan Brown said. “You don’t get tired.”
No. 13-seed La Salle started off like a rocket, stumbled in the second half and then finished strong Friday to upset fourth-seeded Kansas State 63-61 in a West Regional second-round game.
“That was a hard 13 to play,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.
It was the Explorers’ first NCAA Tournament victory since 1990. On Sunday, they’ll play Mississippi, a No. 12 seed that upset No. 5 Wisconsin earlier Friday.
The packed house of purple-clad fans had barely settled into their seats when La Salle’s Tyrone Garland missed a layup.
K-State didn’t make a move for the rebound. Instead, the 5-foot-11 Garland grabbed the ball and made a follow shot.
“They were a little loose, like they weren’t ready for the game,” Garland said of the Wildcats. “And then we hit them and woke them up in the first half.”
La Salle led by as many as 19 points in the first half and were up 44-26 at halftime.
And then, yes, the Wildcats did wake up. They made it a game — with the help of La Salle forward Jerrell Wright sitting on the bench with foul trouble and the Explorers making three second-half baskets.
“Jerrell Wright, Jerrell Wright,” Garland said. “That’s why we won.”
La Salle also made some defensive adjustments in the way it played K-State’s ball screens, but it Wright who closed the game.
“We’re no different than a lot of teams,” Giannini said. “We win with defense. We kept challenging our guys, `We’ll be all right, just get some stops.’”
K-State didn’t score a basket in the last 4:54.
But there was also Wright scoring the game’s final nine points – including 7 of 8 on free throws — while tying his career high of 21 points.
No small thing considering that the Explorers play at home in Philadelphia in 3,400-seat Gola Arena. Friday, he was seeing purple. More than 18,000 packed the house.
“I was just thinking of the word `in,’ ” Wright said of his key throws after K-State had taken a 60-58 lead.
After Wright made 1 of 5 free throws Wednesday in the victory over Boise State, Giannini had a word with him.
Literally one word.
“I told him to just focus on the word `in’ at the line,” Giannini said. “If you do, you won’t think about anything else.”