KANSAS CITY, Mo. — John Giannini kept calling timeouts as La Salle’s big lead kept slipping away, an 18-point halftime advantage wiped out by fourth-ranked Kansas State’s frantic comeback.
The coach’s message every time was simple: Keep playing defense.
The Explorers finally answered his challenge.
Jerrell Wright made three foul shots in the final 30 seconds, and the No. 13 seed from the Atlantic 10 buckled down on defense in the closing minutes, allowing the Explorers to polish off a 63-61 upset win Friday in the NCAA Tournament.
‘‘Every timeout, every time we came in, he was riding us on defense,’’ said Ramon Galloway, who finished with 19 points for La Salle. ‘‘We had a good margin, and they came back and actually took the lead. We had to stick together, dig down deep, and get some stops.’’
The fourth-seeded Wildcats trailed, 44-26, at halftime, but didn’t make another field goal after Jordan Henriquez’s layup with 4:54 remaining in the game. In fact, Kansas State only managed 1 more point — a free throw by the 7-footer with 2:25 left on the clock.
That gave the Explorers (23-9) the window they needed.
Wright, who scored a game-high 21 points, made his first two clutch free throws to give La Salle a 62-61 lead with 30 seconds left.
Henriquez missed in the paint at the other end, and then Wright made the first of two more foul shots with 9.6 seconds to go.
The Wildcats (27-8) raced downcourt, looking for a tying basket, but guard Angel Rodriguez got hung up in the corner near the Kansas State bench. His off-balance shot over the corner of the backboard missed everything, deflating a partisan crowd that packed the Sprint Center.
‘‘They made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t,’’ said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who let his guys freelance on the final possession rather than calling a designed play.
Weber said he tried to call a timeout with Rodriguez boxed in, but the referees didn’t hear him with the crowd roaring.
La Salle, which beat Boise State in one of the First Four games Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, has now won two games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1955.
‘‘We’re not playing with house money. That’s not at all how we’d ever think,’’ said Giannini, whose program hadn’t even been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. ‘‘We want to win every game.’’
The next one will come against No. 12 seed Mississippi, which knocked off fifth-seeded Wisconsin, 57-46, earlier Friday in a suddenly shredded West Region.
Henriquez and Shane Southwell scored 17 points each for Kansas State, which managed to climb back in the game in the second half by holding La Salle to 3-for-18 shooting after the break.
Senior guard Rodney McGruder, the Wildcats’ leading scorer in the regular season, finished with 12 points.