ATLANTA — In the battle of wildcats, there could be only one survivor, and it wasn’t the one anyone outside of Kansas State expected.
Depleted but not defeated Kansas State knocked off Kentucky 61-58 in a bracket-shattering Sweet 16 battle that left an entire nation — well, the Big Blue one, at least — stunned. Ninth-seeded Kansas State will play No. 11 Loyola Chicago in the final of South Region.
The K-State Wildcats survived having three players foul out, including Xavier Sneed who scored a game-high 22 points. After Kentucky’s PJ Washington tied the game at 58 with a free throw, Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. drove for the decisive layup with 18 seconds left, capping a possession that was twice kept alive by offensive rebounds.
Fifth-seeded Kentucky had a chance to force overtime but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Missing 14 of 37 free throws – including 12 by Washington – helped doom Kentucky.
Tipping off in Atlanta, a.k.a. “Catlanta,” this was pretty much a home game for Kentucky; Big Blue Nation arrived late but in force. Opportunistic hawks lurked at the tops of aisles and at the entrance of concourses, offering to take Saturday’s tickets off the hands of broken Nevada fans. This ain’t Kentucky’s first regional.
So when K-State leaped out to early leads of 7-0 and 13-1, the Kentucky faithful didn’t fret. They didn’t worry. They didn’t complain — well, that’s not entirely true; they complained at the audacity of the referees to call even a single foul on their beloved ‘Cats. But more than anything, they waited, as disappointed as a parent summoned to the principal’s office to discuss Junior’s tomfoolery.
And oh, did Kentucky give them – and head coach John Calipari, stalking the sideline like a man trying to scream a cat out of a tree – plenty to yell about. Kentucky missed rotation after rotation, alligator-armed jump shots, and then someone like K-State’s Kamau Stokes would drain a three that just gut-punched BBN all over again.
The turning point might just have come during an official timeout. Cheerleaders from both schools squared off to see who could hold the “Liberty” pose – you know, the one where the lady balances on one foot while the guy holds her up, arms straight up and extended – for longer. K-State was in trouble almost immediately, while Kentucky was locked in and won without even a sideways glance.
Shortly afterward, the tide shifted. Kentucky kept flinging itself against the K-State defense, like birds banging against a glass door, and shortly before the end of the first half, the purple wall began to crack. Kentucky threw up a 8-0 run that culminated in Wenyen Gabriel’s and-1 to draw within 1 with just under a minute left in the half. And while K-State’s Mike McGuirl canned a long three to stretch the lead back to four going into the half, the run had the desired effect: Big Blue Nation was awake and engaged.
Kentucky tied up the game on a Kevin Knox free throw just over a minute into the second half, and from that point, Philips Arena sounded like the inside of a jet engine. Kentucky fans stood up, stopped checking their phones, and dialed into the game. And when Quade Green nailed a long three from the right wing to give Kentucky its first lead, 36-35, Big Blue Nation turned its complete focus on the game.
Ah, but Kansas State wasn’t quite done. Led by Sneed, the purple ‘cats held off the charge of the blue ones. A couple of opportune threes, some sloppy transition defense and a technical foul on Kentucky’s ever-verbose bench put K-State back up by nine with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game. That was enough to get the Kentucky fans surly again, and it was enough to rattle Kentucky, too.
Kentucky was able to make some headway when Sneed went to the bench with four fouls, clambering back to take the lead with 92 seconds remaining. But K-State retook it literally one second later on two foul shots. Sneed left the game just 17 seconds later, taking 22 points and what could have been K-State’s last hopes with him to the bench.
But Washington simply could not hit free throws, and Brown knifed through the blue defense like it didn’t exist, and suddenly Kentucky was down three with seven seconds remaining. Gilgeous-Alexander’s desperation three ringed out, and that was that. As fast as they’d arrived, Kentucky fans cleared out, a surprisingly open road to the Final Four suddenly hitting a dead end.
More Sweet 16 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Loyola’s Cinderella run continues with dramatic win over Nevada
• Did Loyola get away with a travel on crucial play?
• Michigan looks unbeatable as it advances to Elite 8
• Sister Jean: ‘I don’t care that you broke my bracket’