PITTSBURGH -- Quick thoughts from Kansas State's 70-64 victory over Southern Mississippi in the second round:
Overview: Frank Martin likes to say his team is one of the hardest working in the country. Kansas State needed to be that and more against an undersized Southern Miss team that refused to go away.
The Wildcats, bigger at virtually every position, looked ready to dominate early, building a 21-12 lead. But undeterred, Southern Miss drove into the gut of the Kansas State defense, pushing to the basket to take the lead and make it a ballgame.
Once in, the Golden Eagles never got out.
Credit Southern Miss for being scrappy, as Larry Eustachy’s crew has been all season, but this by no means was a great effort by Kansas State. Despite a ridiculous size advantage, the Wildcats managed to get outrebounded, 34-31.
Were it not for the heroics of Rodney McGruder, this would have been a quick exit for the Wildcats.
Turning point: This game didn’t really have a turning point so much as it had a sigh of relief for Kansas State. Angel Rodriguez hit one of two free throws with 57 seconds left to put the Wildcats up 65-61. On the next possession, Darnell Dodson’s baseline 3 fell short and the rebound bounced back to Jamar Samuels. Rodriquez, fouled immediately, drained both to seal the victory.
Key player: With Samuels having little impact, the onus fell on the shoulders of McGruder. He did not disappoint. The junior scored 30 points, practically carrying Kansas State to the third round. McGruder has been terrific all season -- he has scored in single digits just once -- and he was especially good when it mattered most. An extra nod to Jordan Henriquez, who picked up the inside game with Samuels on the bench. Henriquez finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Key stat: Usually a very good free throw shooting team (the Golden Eagles hit 74 percent on the season), Southern Miss struggled at the line, and in a close game that made all the difference. USM was just 12-of-17, with Maurice Bolden missing four in a row with the game tied.
Miscellaneous: In the search for progress department -- in the Golden Eagles' only two other NCAA tournament appearances, they could not keep it close. In 1990, fourth-seeded Southern Miss lost to La Salle 79-63, and in 1991 sixth-seeded N.C. State tagged a 114-85 loss on the Golden Eagles. ... Jamar Samuels was hardly a factor. The K-State senior picked up his third foul early in the second half and got into the scoring column thanks to a free throw with only 14 seconds left. He did have seven rebounds. He’ll need to be a lot better in the next round, especially if the Wildcats face Syracuse.
What’s next: Kansas State will face either Syracuse or UNC Asheville on Saturday. K-State now has won its first NCAA tourney game three years in a row and will try for its second Sweet 16 appearance in three years.