Rolando Blackman fires the game-winning shot against Oregon State, as depicted on the cover of the March 23, 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated. (Image copyright Sports Illustrated, Photo by Peter Read Miller)
Today's piece requires no preamble, nor postscript. Back at #15, we discussed the 1979-80 season, and we talked about 1981-82 at #13. Sandwiched in between those two tourney appearances was the 1980-81 season, which checks in at #5 in our countdown.
The bulk of the starting lineup from 1980 returned: Rolando Blackman, Tyrone Adams, Ed Nealy, and Tim Jankovich. Jari Wills graduated, replaced by junior transfer Randy Reed. There was an expectation that the team would improve. They did -- but on the final ledger, it didn't seem to have been very much.
The season opened with home wins over Northern Iowa and South Dakota before a trip to Arizona. The Cats squeaked out a win in Tucson, but got clobbered by Arizona State in Tempe. Back home, Wisconsin-Parkside and the late lamented US International were both hammered before the Wildcats suffered a seven-point loss to #15 Indiana. Four days later, they met #17 Arkansas in Kansas City. It was a low-scoring affair, and required an extra five minutes to decide, but K-State came away with a 47-46 win. Scooting back to Manhattan, defeats were handed to Fresno State, Louisville, Oklahoma City (now an NAIA team, but then a long-time member of Division I), and Eastern Illinois. That wrapped the non-conference portion of the schedule at 10-2, the same as the previous year.
Things got off to a horrid start. A loss at Nebraska was followed by a narrow overtime escape at Colorado, then a home loss to Oklahoma State and a loss at Oklahoma. But the Cats righted the ship upon returning home, scuttling the #18 Jayhawks 54-43. Five straight wins followed before Kansas got their revenge in Lawrence; the Cats then won in Manhattan over Oklahoma and Iowa State before closing the regular season with a loss at Missouri. K-State finished the regular season at 19-8 (9-5), tied for second place for the second year in a row.
K-State clubbed Oklahoma in Manhattan in the first round of the Big Eight tournament, then eked out a 64-61 win over Colorado in Kansas City to set up the rubber match with Kansas in the final. The Jayhawks were in control throughout, securing the automatic bid with an 80-68 win. The Cats received the #8 seed in the West, and headed out to Los Angeles for the first two rounds.
In the first round, Blackman was effectively defended by San Francisco, and the Cats had to scramble from a 12-point deficit. It was Blackman who put the Wildcats up with 2:19 to go, and K-State pulled out a 64-60 win. That put the Cats into the round of 32, facing a tough test against top-seeded and second-ranked Oregon State, whose only loss of the year had come in their previous game, the season finale against Arizona State.
Oregon State led the game throughout. The Wildcats trailed 26-19 at the half, and with 14 minutes to go they were down 39-28. A K-State run closed the gap over the next 10 minutes, and with just under three and half to go Ed Nealy drained a couple of free throws to tie the game at 48. Those free throws were the result of a foul by Oregon State's Steve Johnson, who fouled out as a result; his absence made a difference down the stretch. For the next 3:21, nobody scored. Then lightning struck. Blackman sunk a jumper from 16 feet with two seconds to go, and after Jeff Stoutt launched a desperate heave from 40 feet out, the Cats had stunned the Beavers and recorded a 50-48 win. The upset earned Blackman a spot on the cover of the following week's Sports Illustrated, the most iconic action shot in K-State basketball history.
Next up in Salt Lake City was a clash with the fourth seed, 19th-ranked Illinois. With 13 minutes to play, K-State led by five, but then went cold, missing seven of their next eight shots. Nealy then went crazy over the next few minutes, recording three steals, two rebounds, and forcing a jump ball which he won. He finished with 12 points and 14 boards, and K-State finished right where they'd been 13 minutes out -- with a five-point win, 57-52.
Against North Carolina, Blackman led the way with 21 while Randy Reed had 19, but North Carolina jumped out to an eight-point lead in the opening minutes, and cruised to an 82-68 win which ended the Wildcat run. But the tournament was still a resounding success for the Cats. They'd knocked off the #2 team in the country and sailed into the Elite Eight, surviving three rounds longer than they'd been expected to. Blackman and Nealy were named to the regional tournament team.
For all their efforts, Blackman was named as a third-team All-American by the NABC, and Jack Hartman was named the NABC's Division I Coach of the Year. On the conference level, Blackman made the first team, and Randy Reed was named Newcomer of the Year.
Next: the Cats do not lose in the Elite Eight.