Kansas State was virtually without its leading scorer, Dean Wade (stress fracture, foot), who played but a token eight minutes in the first half.
Kentucky controlled the building, as it does any building it inhabits in Atlanta or pretty much anywhere else. Your early traffic report: Beware of unusual volume heading north on I-75 in the morning, Kentucky plates and tailights as far as the eye can see.
Kentucky had a massive size advantage at nearly every position, but now we know that height does not always make right. Even as KSU countered with its guard-heavy lineup.
And, finally, as Kansas State attempted to hack away at the trees, the fouls mounted. Three would foul out, and two more teetered with four each. The manpower shortage had become grievous.
Yet, for all that, with its options few, KSU put the ball in the hands of junior guard Barry Brown, and as he dribbled at the top of the key, there was no doubt. It would be up to him alone to slice off a screen and head straight into the Kentucky forest of long arms. His layup with 16 seconds left was the difference.
“Once I got past my man, I just wanted to get the ball away from the people who were going to block my shot,” Brown said, “and I was able to make the lay-up.”
And once Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed his heave 3-pointer, little Kansas State had finished inflicting upon Kentucky its lowest point output of the year. The team that averaged 86 points in its previous two tournament games settled for 28 fewer this night.
Jokingly, one might credit KSU’s free throw defense. For the much-fouled Kentucky attempted 37 free throws, but made only 23 (62 percent).
More in the Winning Wildcats control was the nuisance they made of themselves.
“Coach been stressing all tournament, try to be the best defensive team in the whole tournament. Be a defensive-minded team and the offense will come,” said guard Cartier Diarra, who had Kansas State’s 11th and final steal of the night, which he converted into an important layup with three minutes left.
“I said we had to get a lot of steals,” his coach, Bruce Weber, said. “We had 13 the other night and it was a K-State record. We had to take charges – we took a charge. We had to get on the floor and get the loose balls because we couldn’t out-jump them.”
Forward Xavier Sneed, who led Kansas State with 22 points and seven rebounds, was the only player who could remotely see eye-to-eye with his man. And he fouled out with 1:13 to play.
Otherwise, “We tried to take away their sets,” Diarra said. “We felt like they were a real set-based team and we tried to disrupt that. Their length gave them some offensive rebounds and some tough buckets, but we grinded it out and made everything hard for them.”
“They’re long at every position but our guards got underneath them,” said Wade, who had to watch most of the scramble. “They’re fast, we’re fast, too. It was a matter of us being in the right position on defense, helping our teammates out. Our main goal was to keep them out of the paint, and we did a good enough job of that.”
All that said, is there really any way to rationally explain a Saturday regional final in Philips that will feature the No. 9 seed Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola Chicago?
In speaking for his own team, Wade really spoke for both of Thursday’s survivors: “We’re playing with our hearts – it’s March, I guess.”