KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State came all the way back from an 18-point halftime deficit on Friday, but it wasn’t enough.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats dominated the first 16 minutes of the second half and rallied to take a two-point lead with 4:50 to play.
But K-State didn’t make another field goal the rest of the way, getting outscored 5-1 at the free-throw line in a shocking 63-61 loss to No. 13-seed La Salle at the Sprint Center.
It was the first time the Wildcats (27-8) failed to advance in the NCAA tournament since 1996 — a span of four tournaments.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said his team just didn’t have enough at the end to pull off the win.
“I don’t know if we weren’t ready, maybe we were uptight, but we didn’t get off to a great start,” he said. “I challenged them at halftime to have some emotion, to compete.
“We gave it our best shot — we all had a chance at the end. Even after our comeback, (La Salle) made enough plays down the stretch to find a way to get a victory.”
The Wildcats had a chance to take the lead with less than a minute left when Jordan Henriquez drove to the basket and missed a contested shot. La Salle made one of two free throws, giving the Wildcats nine seconds to try to tie the game.
Angel Rodriguez pushed the ball to the right side of the court, and then quickly began running out of options. He got stuck on the right baseline and tossed up a frantic shot before the buzzer that missed everything.
“I wish I could watch film, just to see that specific play,” Weber said. “I was trying to see the open space or the open guy — it seemed like they did a good job of staying packed in. If I messed up, I’ll take the blame. I don’t know, we just lost the game.”
As Rodriguez was stuck on one side of the court, Weber looked at a nearby official and tried to call his final timeout with 1.7 seconds left. But his plea for a final stoppage went unnoticed by the officials. As Rodriguez’s shot missed and the Explorers celebrated the upset win, Weber was left with a shocked expression.
Henriquez said the Wildcats had chances, but couldn’t get any shots to fall.
“They ended up coming down and getting stops,” Henriquez said of the final 4 minutes. “We didn’t really make enough free throws down the stretch.”
The Wildcats opened the second half on fire, scoring eight straight points to cut the deficit to 10 before Jerrell Wright got a shot to go for the Explorers (23-9). After Wright’s basket, the Wildcats outscored La Salle 12-3 over the next 4 minutes to cut the deficit to just three points with 11:18 to play.
K-State took its first lead of the game with a 7-2 run that led up to the 4:50 mark of the game. But the Wildcats were limited to just one point the rest of the way.
Shane Southwell said he never felt comfortable, even when the Wildcats took the lead.
“Something in my head said, when we first took the lead, that we need to get this to five, because they were making all those free throws,” Southwell said. “You just can’t spot a team 18 points, it’s as simple as that.”
K-State took advantage of the best performance from Henriquez all season, as he scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked five shots to key the Wildcats’ comeback.
Henriquez quickly became the main option for the Wildcats in the second half, and even Thomas Gipson had success when he came in to spell K-State’s big man.
Southwell said the team started trying to get those guys the ball more than ever.
“We started looking for Jordan and Thomas (Gipson) a lot because (La Salle) help up the floor a lot with their bigs,” he said. “Jordan got a couple of lobs, Thomas got a couple lobs and post-up plays.”
Southwell added 17 points for K-State and Rodney McGruder finished with 13 points in his final game.
The Wildcats were just 9 of 17 from the free-throw line, while La Salle made 14 of 16, including 12 of 14 in the second half alone. La Salle made just three baskets from the field in the second half — and still won.
McGruder, one of three K-State seniors, said it was a tough way to finish his career.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” he said. “It’s the last time I’ll play a game, you know, 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 simply couldn’t compete with what La Salle did in the first half, making 58 percent of its shots and 6 of 11 from 3-point range. Explorers’ guard Ramon Galloway seemed unstoppable, scoring 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 3 of 5 from long range in the first half. He finished with 19.
The Wildcats shot just 37 percent from the field and hit just one 3-pointer in the first 20 minutes. McGruder said K-State just couldn’t get shots to fall, and La Salle couldn’t miss.
“We didn’t have any energy,” he said. “We had dead layups, shots that we normally make. We came up short in the first half — we dug ourselves in a hole.”