Yet another South shock: Feisty Kansas State to the Elite Eight

Bruce Weber in exultation.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Bruce Weber in exultation.

You didn’t think the world’s nuttiest regional would go gentle into the Elite Eight, did you? The South – which made history by shedding its four top seeds before the Sweet 16 – just did it again. Saturday’s final will pair No. 9 Kansas State against No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. That had never happened. But it just did.

Kansas State, generally considered the weakest of this Sweet 16, shocked Kentucky, which through attrition had become the overwhelming regional favorite, in Thursday’s nightcap. The Big 12 Wildcats won 61-58. They were deserving winners. They held the SEC Wildcats to 16 baskets over 40 minutes.

At the end, K-State was working without leading scorer Dean Wade, who’d returned in this first half from injury but couldn’t work the second, and three players who’d fouled out. It stole a 13-1 lead at the start and pulled ahead by nine with 13:16 remaining, but the Big 12 Wildcats fell behind by a point twice over the final four minutes and were tied at 58 inside the final minute. And without Wade and Xavier Sneed, who’d fouled out with 22 points, who among them could score?

Barry Brown Jr., that’s who. The guard beat Shai Gilgeous-Alexander off the dribble and dropped home the go-ahead-for-good layup with 16 seconds remaining. Kentucky’s Quade Green air-balled a 3-pointer. K-State’s Amaad Wainright rebounded and made one of two free throws. Gilgeous-Alexander missed trey to tie at the horn. A band of Wildcats had won – just not the Wildcats anyone expected.

“Just wanted to get it over the guys who might block my shot,” Brown said.

“We got picked eighth in the Big 12,” Xavier Sneed said. “We finished fourth. We saw the new (unofficial NCAA reseedings) come out, and we were last.”

But  here these Wildcats stand, 40 minutes from K-State’s first Final Four since 1964. Blocking their path is Loyola, which hasn’t reached a Final Four since it won the 1963 national title. In a tournament that has beggared belief, this crazy-quilt regional has become the epicenter.

Well after midnight, K-State coach Bruce Weber told Brown and Sneed, who’d just been excused from the postgame press conference, “Good job, guys.” Then Weber said: “Unbelievable.”

It kind of was, but it also wasn’t. K-State played harder and faster all game. The key moment came when, with the game tied and 40 seconds remaining, guard Cartier Diarra threw himself on the floor to save an offensive rebound and called timeout to save the possession that culminated with Brown’s winning drive.

Weber: “That’s how you get a victory – not with this thing or that thing but with all the little things that add up.”

This wasn’t a vintage Kentucky team, but it will long rue the way this regional opened up and then slammed closed. Kentucky trailed 33-29 at halftime and could thank its lucky stars – and a slew of whistles against Kansas State – for that. The SEC Wildcats had been outscored 26-13 from the field. They’d made 6 of 23 shots, which wasn’t quite the 3-for-33 second half this program suffered in the 1984 Final Four against Georgetown, but it wasn’t far off. (And who was seated on press row Friday doing radio commentary? John Thompson, who coached those mighty Hoyas.)

On this wild night in Philips Arena, three of the four teams built 12-point leads. The exception was Kentucky, the highest remaining seed. Its biggest lead was a skinny point. It hung around thanks to rebounding and all those free throws – Kentucky took 37 to K-State’s 22 – but 14 missed foul shots (12 by big man PJ Washington) undercut the imbalance.

In what was surely his one and only NCAA tournament, Gilgeous-Alexander had a night he’ll live a long time without forgetting. He missed 8 of 10 shots. He made five turnovers. Hamidou Diallo fouled on a missed Washington free throw with 1:31 left and Kentucky leading by a point. (Brown made free throws to put K-State back ahead.) Kentucky coach John Calipari conceded he should have called timeout before Green’s air ball: “That’s on me.”

But here’s a thought: There are forces at work in the South Regional bigger even than Calipari. The tournament’s first weekend saw, on four successive days, the ousters of No. 4 Arizona, No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 2 Cincinnati. Now No. 5 Kentucky rests alongside them in the dustbin of history, making for what will surely be one of he least-attended Elite Eight games in tournament annals. (Philips wasn’t full Friday with Kentucky; it mightn’t be half-full for Kansas State-Loyola.)

Really, though, who cares? The teams that deserve to be playing Saturday will be playing Saturday. Loyola has Sister Jean and nerveless shooters. K-State has guys who dive on the floor. In a tournament where pedigree hasn’t mattered, it’s fitting that two little teams that do the little things are still kicking.