The day of the basketball game between K-State and KU in Manhattan is my least favorite day of the year. But let's get back to that.
Coming into tonight's contest, this just felt like a mismatch. KU dominated the first game in Lawrence, a 26-point defeat for the Wildcats. Earlier today, Bruce Weber said that if K-State didn't play more aggressively against KU tonight, the Wildcats would get "punk[ed]" again.
While I generally don't put a lot of stock in "effort" and "desire," there was a difference in the way K-State played tonight. The young Wildcats started strong, then extended and held a lead after halftime. With less than two minutes, K-State led by nine, and victory seemed all but assured. A KU-fan friend of mine texted me congratulations, which I'm convinced was an attempt to jinx the result.
You know what happened next. Bill Self is the master of making two minutes feel longer than an awkward dinner with your family, and KU made K-State earn everything. The Wildcats complied with lazy passes and atrocious decisions, and the lead evaporated. Andrew Wiggins scored the tying bucket, somehow rebounding his own layup after he drove past the rim and the entire K-State five forgot about him.
At this point, I didn't think K-State had a chance. I was in the Alamodome the night KU won a national title in basketball, and I saw the look on the faces and the body language of Memphis' players after Mario Chalmers hit his famous shot. It was like a boxer taking a haymaker to the jaw. I was sure K-State had suffered a similar knockout blow just by failing to close out the game in regulation.
But the Wildcats weren't done. Marcus Foster, who led all scorers with 20 points on 10 shots, hit a layup and made the bonus after a Tarik Black foul. Wesley Iwundu shook off earlier nerves and hit a free throw, and D.J. Johnson continued his huge night off the bench by rebounding a Thomas Gipson miss and extending K-State's lead. Ultimately, the Wildcats outlasted another KU charge and held on for a three-point win.
Let's give KU their due here. There isn't a coach whose team is tougher to close out than Self. And the Jayhawks played without backup post player Jamari Traylor, and star Joel Embiid played only 18 minutes. But K-State had its own issues, as senior starter Shane Southwell played only 19 minutes after a leg injury. Foster also missed time with an injury.
So let's give a lot of credit to a player who has been a perennial scapegoat, especially in KU games. Will Spradling score 15 points on eight shots. And it wasn't just three-pointers for Spradling, who crossed up Embiid on a beautiful move to the basket. Two other unheralded players, Omari Lawrence and DJ Johnson, scored nine points apiece.
So K-State beat KU in a basketball game. What does that mean?
Put aside those who tell you this isn't a rivalry because it's not competitive (usually) in the two major sports. While I've said that before, and it has a grain of truth, you haven't lived in Kansas if you can't feel the importance. KU is a laughingstock in football, but you mean to tell me that the Jayhawks' 3-9 football season wouldn't have felt a whole lot better if it would've been 4-8 with a win over K-State? You mean to tell me that K-State's Big 12 title in basketball last year wouldn't have felt a lot better with a win, any win, anywhere, against KU?
K-State has now won three of the last seven meetings with KU in Manhattan. In the last five years, the Wildcats have shared a Big 12 title, gone to an Elite Eight, and made the NCAA Tournament four times. Barring a total collapse, the Wildcats will make the Dance again this year. In other words, they're competitive in their second-best sport. Meanwhile, KU has won six total games and one conference game in the last three years in football.
Is it really your state, KU?