K-State allowed the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers to build a big early cushion and could never quite dig their way back into the game, falling 78-62 in the NCAA South Regional final Saturday night.
The symbolic moment of the game might have occurred with 12:11 to play. With K-State trying to make a run to get back in the game, Kamau Stoke stole the ball at the top of the key. He threw it ahead to Xavier Sneed to lead a potential 2-on-1 break. Sneed mishandled the ball and kicked the opportunity away, out-of-bounds.
The Wildcats fought, but they could not stop the shooting assault of the Ramblers. They shot 57.4% (27-47) for the game, including 50 percent (9-18) from long-range. Ben Richardson, a 6’3 senior from Overland Park, Kansas led Loyola-Chicago with 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Seven players scored six points or more for the Ramblers.
K-State led twice in the first half, 3-2 after Xavier Sneed hit the first of his four three-point makes, and 5-4 after Barry Brown knocked down a jumper at the 16:51 mark. After that, Loyola-Chicago went on an 11-0 run over the next three minutes to open up a 15-5 lead. K-State would never sniff the lead again.
Scoring droughts have been a bugaboo for the Wildcats all season, and they were a problem again today. Defending five capable scorers proved just as difficult an assignment.
K-State scored 12 of its 24 points off turnovers in the first half, demonstrating perhaps just how much trouble the team had scoring on the Loyola half-court defense.
K-State had not recovered from a 10-point deficit all season, and found itself down by 12 at the half, 36-24. The ‘Cats shot 37 percent from the field in the first half, including 22% (2-for-9) from beyond the arc. They only made it to the free throw line on two occasions, where they were 2-for-3. The inability to draw contact suggests a problem with the offense: too much settling for outside shots, and not making them.
Barry Brown had nine first-half points. Sneed had eight. K-State was out-rebounded 18-11. Of course, Loyola only missed twelve shots, so the margin may not come as much of a surprise.
After halftime, Cartier Diarra asserted himself on the offensive end, hitting a three and making drives to the bucket. Unfortunately, K-State could not slow the Ramblers’ offense. Ben Richardson made a three while being fouled, Cameron Krutwig bulled in for a lay-up, Clayton Custer made a three, Donte Ingram scored at the glass, Aundre Jackson hit a lay-up, and suddenly the ‘Cats were down 54-33 with thirteen minutes to play. Loyola was shooting 63 percent from the floor.
The margin never fell below double digits over the remainder of the game. With six minutes to play, Kamau Stokes hit a three to get back within 15, at 61-46. After an impressive block by Mike McGuirl and an incredible save at the other end, Stokes launched again. The ball spun around tantalizingly, but rimmed out.
After a Stokes up-and-under cut the deficit to 13, Custer buried a three to reassert a 16-point cushion. K-State had another chance to cut the lead to 9 or 10 with 3:15 to play, but a stagnant set led to a 3-point miss by Amaad Wainright. From there, Loyola went on a 5-0 run to open up a 17-point cushion again and erase even the smallest reason for optimism. The margin got back to an 11-point deficit again, but that was with a minute to play. The game had been just waiting for the clock to run out for a long time by then.
Sneed scored 16, Brown had 14 and Stokes 13 for the ‘Cats. K-State finished the game shooting a frigid 34.8 percent from the floor, including 24% (6-25) from outside. The Wildcats had 9 assists, while Loyola had 17 on 27 made field goals.
Loyola becomes the fourth 11-seed to make a Final Four. K-State would have been only the second 9-seed in history. That makes sense, since 9s would generally have to get past a 1-seed just to make the Sweet 16. Failing to capitalize fully on the opportunity afforded them by UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia and the early ousters of all the top four seeds in the South bracket is most disappointing.
If we care enough to feel disappointed today, it’s only because these guys gave us reason to hope. They played with big heart, persevered through injuries, and achieved more than even the most optimistic K-State fan could have expected. Falling short stinks for us. Imagine how it feels for them.
The ride has been fun, even though it didn’t end at what we hoped would be the final destination. Maybe next year these guys will put an end to that 54-year Final 4 drought. The prospect seems not at all preposterous.
Three in the Key
- Loyola is Good. Like, really good. They exploit weaknesses exceedingly well. They are balanced, and every guy on the floor can shoot. They make it difficult to run offense, too. K-State helped them by playing poorly, to say the least. But there is a reason that this team only lost five games all year—three of those without Clayton Custer in the line-up. Match-ups matter, but it will be interesting to see if the Ramblers can continue their amazing run in the national semi-final game.
- What might have been. It’s probably the crummiest feeling in sports to get so close, only to come up short. K-State fans know that as well as anyone. Having Dean Wade would surely have made a difference. Would it have been enough to reverse the result? We will never know. It does no good to speculate, anyway. One of these days, when presented with one of these opportunities, our guys will seize it. Just too bad it could not have happened today.
- Looking back...and looking ahead. This team was not met with optimism in the pre-season. League coaches thought they would finish 8th in the 10-team Big 12. They finished 4th. They could not beat the top teams in the conference, but they held serve in all but two games against the rest. When one of the team leaders, Kamau Stokes, fell to injury a couple of games into the league season, the squad seemed on the precipice of crumpling. Instead, it became a galvanizing moment for the team. Diarra stepped up. Wade and Brown elevated their play. The team embraced each other, held together, and achieved more than anyone on the outside had expected.
We saw Dean Wade take a major step at the beginning of league play. Sneed stepped up huge in the tournament. Brown became the sort of leader that can be the backbone of something phenomenal. And Diarra, McGuirl and Mawien all gave us reason to expect better things to come. All of them will be back for more. Today’s game was a disappointment. The season, though, was an undisputed success. Next year? Well, let’s all start to anticipate how the guys will deal with heightened expectations. They’ve earned them.