Nobody gave K-State a chance in this game. Not enough offense, everyone said. Not enough length. Sixteenth best of the Sweet Sixteen teams. Kentucky’s stable of thoroughbreds would stampede all over the purple Wildcats.
Somebody forgot to tell Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed and their teammates that they were supposed to be the Washington Generals of the second week, apparently. They took the fight to Kentucky right off the bat, and made the NBA talent-laden SEC squad work for everything, all night long. Kentucky counter-punched and took leads on several occasions, but the Kansas version of the Wildcats got a monstrous drive and bucket by Barry Brown on K-State’s biggest possession of the season to win, 61-58.
Brown’s drive for K-State’s 60th point was as clutch a play as you’ll ever see. It was set up by Diarra snaring a rebound off a Brown miss to extend the ‘Cat possession. Diarra nearly lost the ball and called time-out to avoid a tie-up with Kentucky owning the arrow.
After Brown’s tough drive and finish, Kentucky’s three-point attempt was short, and Amaad Wainright corralled the rebound, was fouled, and made 1-of-2 free throws to stretch the lead to 3. Kentucky was unable to hit the tying shot, and celebration erupted in Aggieville.
The contest could not have started much better for K-State. Just as Kentucky appeared ready to score near the basket on the first possession, Makol Mawien came away with a steal. The motion offense produced a nice dump-down to Brown near the basket, and after Hamidou Diallo fouled him, he hit 1-of-2 free throws for the game’s first point.
Two possessions later, Brown hit a three from the corner. Then Xavier Sneed hit a three. Kamau Stokes converted a conventional three-point play, and Sneed buried another long one to force a Kentucky time-out with the score 13-1, K-State.
The time-out worked for Calipari’s crew, who scored the next 9 points to draw the score to 13-10. Worse, Makol Mawien picked up his second foul during this stretch, pressing Dean Wade into more service time than Coach Weber probably wanted. Two Wade free throws put K-State back on the board after a 3:47 scoring drought.
Kentucky got within two, 17-15, before enduring its own scoring drought. Free throws by Levi Stockard and another three by Sneed—his third of the opening half—extended K-State’s lead back to seven, 22-15, with eight minutes to play.
Foul trouble was a storyline in the first half, as the zebras were surprisingly liberal with the whistles for a tournament game. Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo picked up two early. Makol Mawien and Levi Stockard both had two in the first twelve minutes of action. At 5:55, Stockard actually picked up his third infraction. At 3:17, Diallo picked up his third. Sneed followed suit with just under a minute to play in the half.
Kansas State finished with 16 first-half fouls, against 10 on Kentucky. The SEC’s Wildcats were not whistled for a foul in the last 6:09 of the half.
Kentucky had a pronounced advantage at the line, and it absolutely kept them in the game. The blue Wildcats made 16 of 23 attempts in the first half. That was almost enough to offset their 6-of-23 performance from the floor. That’s right; Kentucky had only six field goals in the entire first half.
K-State finished the half 10-of 28 from the floor, 7-11 at the free throw line. Xavier Sneed was 3-5 from outside, and the ‘Cats as a team hit 6 of 15 three-point attempts in the half. Thanks to a make by Mike McGuirl on K-State’s penultimate possession, K-State went to break with a 33-29 lead.
Kentucky started the second half with an easy isolation on the block, then turned an offensive rebound into a third foul against Mawien. After Kevin Knox hit both free throws, the game was tied for the first time since the opening tip. Kentucky took its first lead, 36-35, on a Quade Green three-pointer at the 17:22 mark. After a Mawien answer was wiped away by a travel, Coach Weber called a timeout to regroup.
Sneed connected on his fourth 3-pointer of the night to put K-State back in front. After the game was tied at 38, K-State went on a 9-0 run (keyed by another Sneed three) to pull in front 47-38. Kentucky whittled the lead with a couple of tough shots, and at the under-12 break, K-State led 47-42.
K-State missed two chances to push the lead to double-digits before the under-8 timeout. An enormous moment occurred at 8:24, when Sneed—who had played like a man possessed and had 22 of K-State’s 52 points at the time—picked up his fourth foul.
Kentucky missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but got the rebound and a putback to pull within 5 again. Rebounding became a significant issue over the next few possessions, leading to second-chance points and more free throws.
Kentucky surged back on top, 55-54 with just under five minutes to play. K-State’s offense went stagnant again with Sneed on the bench. After a steal and a nice take for the and-one opportunity by Cartier Diarra put K-State in front again, the teams went to the sidelines for the last media timeout with the score K-State 56, Kentucky 55.
The last few minutes were all tension. Kentucky regained the lead at 57-56 on a PJ Washington lay-up that fouled Mawien out of the game. He missed the free throw, however, and Diallo fouled Barry Brown on the rebound. He hit both charity tosses to put the K-State ‘Cats back on top.
On the ensuing possession, Sneed poked the ball loose from PJ Washington and was called for a questionable foul, his fifth. He became the third—and by far the most important—purple to foul out. A 1-for-2 trip to the line tied the game at 58-all. Then heart, execution and an unforgettable performance by the smallest line-up you may ever see in a Sweet 16 matchup made magic.
Wade came back from injury to play 8 minutes, all in the first half.
Kentucky entered the game 9-0 all-time against K-State. It had won 8 straight games in the Sweet Sixteen. K-State didn’t care about any of that. Only tonight mattered, and tonight was theirs.
Sneed led Kansas State with 22 points and 9 rebounds. Brown had 13. Stokes and Wainright were next with six apiece. It was a team effort, on both ends.
PJ Washington led Kentucky with 18 points. He was a ghastly 8-for-20 from the free throw line, no doubt leaving Kentucky fans to lament what might have been.
Kansas State has not been to the Final Four since 1964. On Saturday, these unexpected heroes will attempt to rewrite K-State sports history and get there for the first time in 54 years. Tournament basketball is so damn cool.
Three in the Key
- No Scaredy-Cats. K-State established right off the bat that the moment was not going to be too big for them. They locked down defensively and opened the game on a 7-0 run. They showed poise on the defensive end and weathered scoring droughts and foul trouble to nurse a four-point lead into halftime.
- Three on the arc. Three point shooting was key for K-State. The squad has struggled from outside for weeks. But against the length and athleticism of Kentucky, the ‘Cats were going to have to knock down some longballs. Sneed obliged in the first half, and Brown, Stokes and McGuirl all contributed, as well. Sneed kept it going until foul trouble sent him to the bench. The 6-5 sophomore finished 5 for 8 from deep on the night. And when they respected the outside shot too much, he put it on the floor and got to the rim. Sharing the floor with five-star talent, Sneed had a gold star night.
- Next year? Why not This Year? In the last month we have seen the emergence of Mawien, Diarra and McGuirl. Tonight, Sneed elevated his game to levels we have never seen before, on the biggest stage and against the best athletes. With no scholarship seniors, excitement for next year was building, no matter what happened tonight. With a matchup against 11-seed Loyola-Chicago standing as the only hurdle between K-State and a Final Four, it would be disappointing if this already-special run did not end in San Antonio.