Southern Miss fades in 70-64 loss to Kansas State

WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer Published:

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- It took Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy 11 years and one very public downfall to return to the NCAA tournament.

He doesn't think it will take him -- or the Golden Eagles -- nearly as long to get back. That's why Eustachy shed no tears after a 70-64 loss to Kansas State in the second round on Thursday. Considering how far he and the program he inherited in 2004 have come, there's hardly any room to complain.

"We just try and try and try," Eustachy said. "It's a record-setting team for Southern Miss."

One, though, that faltered midway through the second half when a five-point lead turned into a seven-point deficit from which the Golden Eagles couldn't recover.

"When it came time to make the key plays (Kansas State) did a better job at it than we did," Eustachy said. "I think that was the deciding factor. In key moments we just broke down."

Neil Watson led the Southern Miss (25-9) with 16 points, and LaShay Page had 15. Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson scored all 14 of his points in the second half, but Southern Miss fell to 0-3 in NCAA play by wilting in the middle of the second half.

The Golden Eagles had all the momentum after a Dodson 3-pointer gave them a 45-40 lead.

Kansas State responded with a 18-6 run led by Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez, who combined for 13 points during the burst, including a 3-pointer by McGruder that hit every inch of the rim before rolling in.

Southern Miss made one last run but couldn't extend Eustachy's revival act through the weekend.

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, 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 the tournament for the first time since Brett Favre was still in school. Heady territory for a program and a coach humbled by the experience.

"This is as special as it gets," Eustachy said. "I didn't appreciate it as much before. I really didn't. God has given me a second chance."

The Wildcats will play on, though, thanks to the heady play of freshman guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored seven of his 13 points in the final 2:10 to fend off one last Southern Miss push.

Kansas State coach Frank Martin called it no coincidence that Rodriguez -- who airballed a couple of shots early and gave it away three times -- was the player with the ball in his hands and the season on the line.

"It's not like I trust him with 10 minutes to go and not trust him with two minutes to go," Martin said. "I've got tremendous faith in him. That's why you saw him out there making the plays he made towards the end of the game."

Rodriguez, handed the starting job in January after the Wildcats got off to a slow start in Big 12 play, hit a nifty reverse layup after the Golden Eagles drew within three, then added five late free throws after Kansas State's defense tightened up.

"We were fortunate to take the punch and stop the bleeding by making another run," Rodriguez said

McGruder led Kansas State (22-10) with 30 points -- including 18 in the first half when the Wildcats could muster little else -- and Henriquez added 15 points and nine rebounds for Kansas State, which won its opening NCAA game for the third straight year.

"We've elevated our program to one of the better programs in the country," Martin said. "We have been in this thing consistently. I don't know how many people can claim they've been in it four out of five years."

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. His play has the Wildcats brimming with confidence heading into Saturday.

"We have to do what I told the team," Martin said. "We got to be on a bunch of one-game winning streaks. That's all we got to do."