The fourth seeded Kansas State Wildcats (25-9, 14-4 Big 12) started strong before crashing back down to earth in a first-round NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament loss to the 13 seed UC Irvine Anteaters (30-5, 15-1 Big West), 70-64 on Friday afternoon.
The Wildcats built a 10-point lead in the first half despite missing senior Dean Wade due to a foot injury. After a long UC Irvine scoring drought, K-State led 28-18 with 6:17 left in the half. From that point until halftime, the Anteaters went on a tear while the Wildcats went ice cold and senior Barry Brown Jr. went to the bench for an extended period with foul trouble. To cap off the big comeback, Max Hazzard hit a three-pointer with two seconds to go, sending the game to the break tied at 30.
The second half was much more back-and-forth than the big runs of the first half, until the Wildcats suffered another long drought while the Anteaters built an eight-point lead, 61-53. K-State trimmed the lead as close as two, with three-pointers by seniors Brown and Kamau Stokes. Hazzard hit a wide-open corner three for UC Irvine, but K-State sophomore Cartier Diarra answered with his own three when junior Xavier Sneed tipped an offensive rebound out to him, cutting the difference to two again with 71 seconds left. But K-State couldn’t make anything happen offensively after that, and UC Irvine salted it away with four free throws from Evan Leonard down the closing stretch.
Hazzard and Leonard led all scorers with 19 points each, while Stokes led K-State with 18 points on 12 shots. Junior Makol Mawien was the other main bright spot for the Wildcats, scoring 14 points on 11 shots and grabbing 12 rebounds for just his second double-double as a Wildcat. In his last game at K-State, Brown scored five points on nine shots and added five rebounds, one assist, and one steal.
A year after an Elite Eight run that earned him a lot of goodwill, head coach Bruce Weber fell to 1-4 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at K-State (0-2 as a four seed and as Big 12 champion). Brown deserved to go out with a better game, and Wade deserved to go out healthy. They, along with Stokes, did so much for the program over the past four seasons.
Hopefully next year Mawien, Diarra, Sneed, and this year’s reserves are ready to shoulder the burden, or it could be a long season ending in the first round of the conference tournament.