There were moments Thursday when it seemed like Washington native Rodney McGruder was the only Kansas State player capable of putting the ball in the basket. But when it mattered most, the first breakout star of this year’s NCAA tournament got just enough help to put the Wildcats over the top.
McGruder erupted for a game-high 30 points as No. 8 seed Kansas State got past No. 9 seed Southern Miss, 70-64, in an East Region second-round game in Pittsburgh. McGruder, a former All-Met from Caroll, went 11 of 17 from the field, more field goals than the rest of his teammates made combined.
Southern Miss guard Neil Watson led the Golden Eagles with 16 points off the bench, and guard LaShay Page added 15 points. But the Golden Eagles shot just 36.1 percent from the field, and the Wildcats made some clutch free throws down the stretch with the game still in doubt.
Kansas State will face either No. 1 seed Syracuse or No. 16 seed UNC Asheville in the third round Saturday.
If the Golden Eagles were intimidated by McGruder’s performance, they didn’t show it to start the second half. Southern Miss hit six of its first eight shots after halftime and led 45-40 with 13:15 remaining when forward Darnell Dodson (14 points) knocked down a three-pointer.
Kansas State center Jordan Henriquez, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and five blocks, responded with six straight points to re-take the lead . The Golden Eagles tied the score again at 51, but McGruder hit a jumper that gave Kansas State the lead for good.
Kansas State jumped out to early leads of 8-1 and 17-10 thanks to McGruder’s hot shooting, but Southern Miss stayed within striking distance when Watson came off the bench and scored 10 points in a four-minute span heading into the final media timeout of the first half.
Kansas State entered halftime with a 30-27 lead, and McGruder had 18 points already.
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