Kansas State's Rodney McGruder (22) gets a shot off over Southern Miss defender Jonathan Mills during the first half of an East Regional NCAA tournament second-round college basketball game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 15, 2012. McGruder was the leading scorer in a 70-64 Kansas State win. ( AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Kansas State coach Frank Martin likes to joke that freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez is quickly adding to the gray hair on Martin’s head.
The coach can probably live with the stress if Rodriguez keeps playing the way he did against Southern Miss.
Rodney McGruder kept the eighth-seeded Wildcats in their second-round matchup with the ninth-seeded Golden Eagles and Rodriguez closed Southern Miss out late as Kansas State surged to a 70-64 victory on Thursday afternoon.
Rodriguez hit a nifty reverse lay-up after the Golden Eagles had pulled within 62-59 then added three late free throws as the Wildcats won their opening tournament game for the third straight year.
Kansas State (22-10) will play either Syracuse or UNC-Asheville in the third round on Saturday.
McGruder finished with 30 points—including 18 in the first half when the Wildcats could muster little else—and center Jordan Henriquez added 15 points, nine rebounds and six blocks for Kansas State.
Rodriguez, handed the starting job after the Wildcats slumped early in Big 12 play, had 13 points and four assists.
Neil Watson led Southern Miss (25-9) with 16 points, LaShay Page had 15 and Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson scored all 14 of his points in the second half. But the Golden Eagles let a chance to win their first-ever tournament game slip away in the final minutes.
Southern Miss led by as many as five points in the second half but had no answer when McGruder and Rodriguez in the end.
The Golden Eagles, making their first tournament appearance in 21 years, overcame some early jitters to take a 45-40 lead on a 3-pointer by Dodson with just over 13 minutes to go.
Kansas State responded with a 18-6 surge led by McGruder and Henriquez, who combined for 13 points during the run, including a 3-pointer by McGruder that hit every inch of the rim before rolling in.
The Wildcats appeared safe when Rodriguez hit Thomas Gipson on an alley-oop to give them a 62-55 lead with just over 3 minutes left, but Dodson—cast off by Kentucky coach John Calipari two years ago—hit a jumper then added a steal and dunk to get Southern Miss within 62-59 with 2:30 to play.
Rodriguez worked the ball on the wing out of a timeout then blew past two defenders for a reverse lay-up that pushed Kansas State’s advantage back to five.
Moments later Rodriguez calmly drained three free throws and Southern Miss came up empty on its next two trips to ruin coach Larry Eustachy’s return to the NCAAs.
The former Iowa State coach led the Cyclones to a pair of Big 12 titles over a decade ago before his stunning downfall. He resigned in 2003 shortly after photos of him partying with students surfaced.
Eustachy went to rehabilitation to treat alcoholism and found a job at Southern Miss in 2004, where he’s slowly built the program into a Conference USA contender by providing a home for cast-offs from other programs and junior college transfers.
The Golden Eagles repaid Eustachy’s patience by leading the program to just its third-ever tournament appearance, but Southern Miss had trouble all game overcoming the bigger, tougher Wildcats.
No Wildcat was bigger or tougher than Henriquez. The 6-foot-11 center dominated the lane, swatting six shots and altering a handful of others.
He wasn’t too bad on the other end of the floor either. Henriquez—a 52 percent free-throw shooter—made 9-of-10 at the line to give McGruder some help after a first half in which McGruder singlehandedly kept Kansas State in front.