And the games have begun.
Rodney McGruder scored 30 points to lead eighth-seeded Kansas State past No. 9 seed Southern Miss, 70-64, this afternoon to start the all-day action in the NCAA Tournament East Regional games at Consol Energy Center.
The Wildcats (22-10) clinched a date with the winner of No. 16 UNC-Asheville (24-9) vs. No. 1 Syracuse (31-2) second-rounder, which is scheduled to tipoff at approximately 3:10 p.m., today.
The third-round games will be held on Saturday at an undetermined time.
Kansas State, a virtual consensus pick by national pundits and bracket fillers in the normally contentious 8-9 seed game, showed why they were so popular (77.2 percent picked the Big 12 school among 6.5 million ESPN brackets).
McGruder, a 6-4 junior guard from Washington, D.C., shot 11 of 16 from the field and scored 18 first-half points for Kansas State. Jordan Henriquez, a 6-11 junior forward, had 15 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots for the Wildcats.
Southern Miss senior Darnell Dodson, the former Pitt enrollee, came off the bench for his third career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out in the final minute.
LaShay Page scored 15 points for Southern Miss (25-9), a Conference-USA school making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years.
Six consecutive points from Dodson gave Southern Miss a 45-40 lead – the biggest edge by either team in the opening 16 minutes of the second half – but Kansas State responded with an 11-2 run to go ahead 51-47 on McGruder’s bounce-around-the-rim 3-pointer for a 51-47 edge with nine minutes to play.
Tied at 51-all with eight minutes to play, Kansas State went on a 7-0 run over the next 3:29 to take the lead for good, 58-51.
Southern Miss got to within, 64-61, on Neil Watson’s breakaway layup with 1:14 left, but Kansas State freshman guard Angel Hernandez made 1 of 2 free throws and Dodson missed a 3-pointer at the other end with 34 seconds to play.
The Wildcats led 8-1 early on and 21-12 with seven minutes to play in the first half, before Southern Miss sophomore guard Neil Watson scored all 10 of his first-half points during a 13-2 run that gave the Golden Eagles their first lead, 25-23, with 4:12 to play in the first half.
Kansas State shot 1 for 8 from 3-point range and was outrebounded 19-16 in the first half, but led 30-27 at the break behind McGruder’s 18 first-half points. Senior forward Jamar Samuels, the team’s second-leading scorer, picked up two fouls and only played 10 scoreless first-half minutes.
In today’s other East Regional games at Consol, No. 10 seed West Virginia (19-13) will play No. 7 Gonzaga (25-6) at 7:20 p.m., and Loyola, Md. (24-8) will meet No. 2 Ohio State (27-7) at approximately 9:50 p.m.
— John Grupp