Battle-tested in the Big 12 this season, Kansas State was able to handle the pressure down the stretch in the Round of 64 on Thursday afternoon.
Guard Rodney McGruder was impressive, pouring in 30 points on 11-for-17 shooting to lead the Wildcats to a 70-64 win over Southern Mississippi in Pittsburgh, Pa.
In what became a free throw-shooting battle for the last eight minutes of regulation, Kansas State ended up 26-34 from the line.
Southern Miss’s offense was disjointed down the stretch, whether that is a credit to Kansas State’s defense or poor decision making, the Golden Eagles’ four-minute lull in the second half allowed the Wildcats to pull ahead for good.
Coming into the game, Southern Miss was concerned about the inside presence of Kansas State center Jordan Henriquez, who ended with 15 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks.
McGruder was key, especially in the first 20 minutes, as his 18 points paced the Wildcats and kept them above water for a first half in which they scored just 30 points.
Neil Watson led Southern Miss with 16 points, though he committed five turnovers. Shooting struggles continued to plague the Golden Eagles, who shot just 36% on Thursday afternoon.
Kansas State moves on to play Syracuse, who survived UNC-Asheville on Thursday evening.
With Syracuse up next, Henriquez’s presence on the interior will become more important, as Orange center Fab Melo is academically ineligible.
Another 15 point, five-block performance would help Kansas State, as they move forward to the Round of 32.