KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- La Salle coach John Giannini refused to let his players hang their heads.
His team had just followed up a loss to Saint Louis in the regular-season finale with a setback against Butler in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Instead of chastising the Explorers, Giannini smiled and delivered a simple message.
“I told them not to feel bad,” Giannini said, now in his ninth year as head of the Explorers. “I told them, ‘You’re far better prepared for the [NCAA] tournament than you realize. You just lost to two Final Four teams.
“You’re not going to play against anyone in this tournament that’s tougher than Saint Louis or Butler.”
Or VCU or Temple, for that matter.
It might not be a part of the "power six" conferences, but the Atlantic 10 has proved over the past 48 hours that it's as tough as any league in the nation. The A-10 is 6-0 in tournament games so far, and no win was as head-turning as La Salle’s 63-61 victory over Kansas State on Friday at the Sprint Center.
The victory was the second in three days for the No. 13 seed Explorers, who defeated Boise State in a First Four match Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. It's La Salle's first NCAA tournament since 1992, and it now faces No. 12 seed Ole Miss on Sunday at the Sprint Center.
“Part of the reason you see these scores is because everyone takes basketball seriously,” Giannini said. “People have made great commitments. Whether it’s salaries, budgets, facilities ... people want to be where we are right now, and people [are] willing to invest to make that happen.”
Indeed, Friday’s victory over the Big 12 co-champion Wildcats hardly seemed like an upset. A day before the game, someone joked with K-State coach Bruce Weber that "No. 13 seeds aren’t what they used to be."
“No kidding,” Weber said. “Did you watch them play Boise State? Wow.”
Talent-wise, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two teams. At some positions, La Salle was simply better. La Salle led by as many as 19 points in the first half and was ahead 44-26 at intermission.
Even more impressive about La Salle’s performance is that it came in front of approximately 18,000 purple-clad K-State fans in Kansas City. Make no mistake: This was a road game for La Salle -- and a tough one at that.
“It was by far the best arena I’ve ever played in,” La Salle guard Ramon Galloway said. “The crowd was great. They were quiet in the first half because we had a lead. But when the game got tough, when [the Wildcats] were making their run, they made sure we heard them.”
Kansas State went on a 31-12 march in the second half and took a 61-60 lead on a free throw by Jordan Henriquez with 2:25 remaining. The score remained the same until the waning seconds, when Rodney McGruder missed a 3-pointer with 31 seconds remaining. Jerrell Wright snared the rebound and was fouled by Henriquez. Wright swished both free throws to put La Salle ahead 62-61.
A 60 percent foul shooter, Wright had gone 1-for-5 in Wednesday’s win over Boise State.
“There were no butterflies,” Wright said. “Coach just told me every time I shoot a free throw to have the same form and to keep my focus.”
Henriquez missed a short hook shot on K-State’s next possession, and again, Wright grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made his first free throw and missed the second, giving KSU a chance to either tie or win with 9 seconds remaining and with La Salle leading 63-61.
Point guard Angel Rodriguez, however, failed to put up a quality shot -- he ended up taking a baseline jumper in traffic -- as time expired. Weber was screaming for a timeout but he either was ignored or wasn’t heard.
“I yelled it as loud as I could,” Weber said, “but we couldn’t get the call. La Salle ... that was a hard No. 13 to play, to be honest. Somewhere along the line they probably had some inconsistency that led them to be [a No. 13 seed].
“We can’t complain. We had the advantage of an extra day off and of playing in Kansas City. Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.”
And sometimes they are.
That was certainly the vibe in La Salle’s locker room following Friday’s “upset” victory. The Explorers watched two years ago as VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four.
They don’t see any reason they couldn’t do something similar.
“Why not?” guard Sam Mills said. “Why not?"