PITTSBURGH — March Madness is about survival. No matter what transpires during the 40 minutes of action — whether it’s an ugly game or a well-played one, the only thing of importance is figuring out a way to play another day.
And Kansas State, led by Rodney McGruder, did just that.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats (22-10) defeated No. 9 seed Southern Mississippi 70-64 in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday, advancing into the round of 32, where they will play No. 1-seeded Syracuse (32-2) on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. (CST).
“We live to see another day,” K-State’s Jamar Samuels said.
McGruder made sure that was the case. The junior outscored the Golden Eagles’ entire starting five by one point, as he recorded a game-high 30 points on 11-of-16 accuracy from the field, had four steals and grabbed four rebounds.
“As a coach and a teammate, there’s a reason we’re playing on Saturday — because of his personality, his work ethic, his toughness,” K-State head coach Frank Martin said. “He continues to do that for us. He’s phenomenal.”
McGruder scored 18 of K-State’s 30 first-half points, then scored seven of the Wildcats’ first eight points to begin the second half.
“Rodney carried us the first half,” K-State associate head coach Brad Underwood said. “We put a saddle on his back and rode him pretty hard from an offensive standpoint. It was pretty much the Rodney show on offense in the first half.”
The thing that perhaps was most impressive for McGruder is the simple fact that everyone knows he’s the Wildcats’ best offensive weapon, yet opponents have struggled to defend him over the past several weeks.
“That’s what makes what he’s done so much more impressive,” Martin said. “He’s an awesome kid — just an awesome kid. I can sit here and rave about him till Saturday before we go out and play.”
“He’s a very special player,” Southern Miss guard Angelo Johnson said. “If he was in our conference, he’d be the MVP.”
As good as McGruder was, the Wildcats wouldn’t be moving on if it weren’t for the play of Jordan Henriquez and Angel Rodriguez. Henriquez scored 15 points, made 9-of-10 from the foul line, collected nine rebounds and blocked six shots.
“McGruder is a great talent,” Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy said. “But Henriquez is as important to that team as McGruder.”
The same could be said for Rodriguez, who scored 13 points and dished out four assists in 27 minutes of action. And one of the most impressive things about the freshman guard is something that can’t be coached: He’s fearless, especially when the game is on the line, and although he turned the ball over twice late, he still managed to score seven points in the final 2:10 of the contest.
“I thought he murdered us,” Eustachy said of Rodriguez. “I didn’t see us frustrating him at all. I saw him frustrating us — frustrating me. I think we got into him and bothered him a little bit, but then he was able to go by us. I thought he made some huge baskets.”
The Golden Eagles (25-9) got within three points twice in the waning minutes, and both times, Rodriguez had an answer. He hit a difficult reverse layup at the 2:10-mark of the second half to put K-State up 64-59, then hit 5-of-6 from the foul line to close out the win.
“I’ve got tremendous faith in him,” Martin said. “That’s why you saw him out there making the plays he made toward the end of the game.”
K-State took a 30-27 lead into halftime, but the Golden Eagles, who were just 10-of-30 from the floor in the opening half, caught fire early on after the break. Southern Miss made six of its first nine shots, including a 3-for-3 performance from 3 to start the final period, as the Golden Eagles took a 45-40 lead with 13:16 remaining.
But over the next five minutes, Southern Miss missed all seven of its shot attempts as K-State took a 51-47 lead. The Golden Eagles eventually tied it up again at 51-all, but they never again led in the final 10:19 of the game.
K-State’s defense held Southern Miss to 22-of-60 (36.7 percent) shooting, and after making seven of its first 14 attempts from 3, the Golden Eagles misfired on eight of their final nine from beyond the arc.
“I thought defensively, I couldn’t be prouder of the way we played,” Martin said. “I thought we kept them in front of us most of the time. When they did beat us off the dribble it wasn’t a blow-by, which allowed Jordan to protect the rim.”
One of the concerns going into Thursday’s game was free-throw shooting. Southern Miss averaged 23 attempts per game and made 73.6 percent of its attempts from the foul line this season. But the Wildcats were the story from the charity stripe, making 26-of-34 (76.5 percent) while Southern Miss made just 12-of-17.
“We were phenomenal at the line,” Underwood said. “You get into this tournament where you get against a really good defensive team and scoring points is a grind and difficult, free throws are a way you can exploit that. We put some fouls on their guards and that was huge.”
K-State connected on just 2-of-12 from 3, but the Wildcats made 19 of their 30 shots (63 percent) from inside the arc. Overall, K-State made 21-of-42 from the floor, including 10-of-17 in the second half.
The Wildcats, who have been in the NCAA tournament in four of the last five seasons under Martin, have now won all four of their opening-round games during that stretch. It seems K-State has this whole survive and advance thing down pretty well.
“We’ve elevated our program to one of the better programs in the country,” Martin said. “We’ve been in this thing consistently. But you can’t worry about all that stuff. Because we won three games two years ago, that’s not going to help us against (Syracuse) on Saturday.
“We have to do what I told the team: We’ve got to be on a bunch of one-game winning streaks. We can’t worry about the Sweet 16. We can’t worry about yesterday. We’ve got to worry about the next game and just put our efforts and our energy to focus in for that moment, then go out and do the best we can. If it’s good enough, awesome. Let’s go jump up and down and love everything that comes with that. If it’s not, I’m still going to be proud as heck of these guys that line up and go for it and have made us one of the better programs in the country.”