Kamau Stokes did everything he could to help Kansas State upset North Carolina in the championship game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
He drilled six three-pointers and led all scorers with 24 points. He showed no fear playing on the biggest stage of his life against the nation’s ninth-ranked team and a traditional college basketball power. He gave the Wildcats legitimate hope of staying undefeated and claiming their first signature victory of the season.
But the freshman point guard showed his youth in the final moments, losing two turnovers that helped North Carolina rally for an 80-70 victory.
“Kamau was special tonight,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “When he got here he didn’t miss any shots, and then all of a sudden he couldn’t make a shot. But he has been in the gym and it really paid off for him … I know he feels bad. He made a couple mistakes there at the end that, but if it wasn’t for him we obviously wouldn’t have been in the game.”
The final score didn’t do this one justice. The Wildcats had the Tar Heels on the ropes until the bitter end. K-State players could picture the trophy celebration when Stephen Hurt made a fade-away jumper for a 67-59 lead with 4 minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
The Wildcats had the crowd behind them, and they had Roy Williams’ team sweating.
“The sad part it is we could only do it for 38 minutes,” Weber said.
More like 36. North Carolina (5-1) dominated the final four minutes in jaw-dropping fashion, ending the game on a 21-3 run. It hit K-State (4-1) with one blow after another.
The knockout punch came on an errant pass from Stokes with 2:03 to go with the score tied at 68-68.
The sharpshooter from Baltimore lobbed a pass to forward D.J. Johnson near the top of the key, and North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks raced in for a steal, which he converted into a fast-break layup. Stokes rushed the ball up court and looked for a quick answer, but he lost another turnover near the baseline.
This time, Theo Pinson responded with a three-pointer to put North Carolina up 73-68 with 1:25 remaining. The game was effectively over, and things quickly spiraled out of control for K-State. North Carolina scored seven more points and celebrated at midcourt.
No one took the loss harder than Stokes.
“I think I played within the system,” Stokes said. “Coach called the plays and we executed off them early. At the end of the game we just didn’t have the discipline to finish. I think everybody played very well. We played hard throughout the whole game. We just didn’t execute at the end.”
The Tar Heels did. Justin Jackson led them with 22 points, Meeks added 15 points and Pinson had 11.
Without star Marcus Paige, this wasn’t the roster experts pegged as the preseason No. 1. But it was the best opponent K-State had played. Many were interested to see how the Wildcats would handle the challenge. They looked better than expected in their first four games, blowing out three midmajor teams at home and stomping Missouri on Monday night in the CBE semifinals.
But this was their first major test.
For the most part, they performed well. Players are not into moral victories, but if there was any doubt about the validity of K-State’s hot start, the Wildcats all but erased it by playing North Carolina so tough.
“Now we know we can play with the best,” said senior guard Justin Edwards after scoring 10 points. “I am angry that we lost, but I am kind of happy because I know that I am playing with guys who show emotion and will do anything it takes to win.”
There were times K-State appeared back to the NCAA Tournament regular it has been in past years.
Stokes was a major reason why. He was scorching hot from behind the arc, making six of eight three-pointers after missing 11 of 14 in his first four games. His 24 points were a career high that offered hope for the future.
“It was just that day,” Stokes said. “Sometimes it’s not on. Sometimes it’s on.”
But he didn’t receive enough help at times. Edwards was the only other K-State player to reach double figures.
Still, there were times everything clicked, like during a three-play spurt in the first half when Hurt fought his way into the lane and made a contested shot from mid-range. Then Austin Budke charged at the basket and converted an and-one layup. Justin Edwards followed with a runner to give K-State a 17-11 lead.
Those baskets capped a 15-3 run that had every K-State fan in the building on their feet.
The Wildcats led 32-30 at halftime. Then they inched toward an upset in the second half, despite shooting 40.3 percent for the game. Missed layups were an issue from start to finish. So was foul trouble.
Late turnovers hurt, too.
K-State threw everything it had at North Carolina. The Tar Heels were simply too strong.
“If the young guys continue to get better, the older guys stay consistent and we stay healthy, we are going to be able to compete with a lot of people,” Weber said. “We are a good team.”
No. 9 NORTH CAROLINA 80
KANSAS STATE 70
Kansas State (4-1): Wade 2-6 0-0 5, Hurt 3-6 1-2 8, Stokes 8-15 2-4 24, Edwards 3-11 4-4 10, Iwundu 3-8 0-2 6, Ervin II 2-3 4-4 8, Johnson 3-5 0-2 6, Brown 0-6 0-0 0, Budke 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 25-62 12-19 70.
North Carolina (5-1): Meeks 6-9 3-3 15, Johnson 5-9 0-0 10, Jackson 8-13 4-5 22, Pinson 3-8 2-4 11, Berry II 2-7 2-2 7, Britt 2-7 1-2 5, Hicks 2-5 4-4 8, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Maye 0-1 0-0 0, James 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-62 16-20 80.
Half: Kansas State 32-30. 3-Point Goals: Kansas State 8-16 (Stokes 6-8, Hurt 1-1, Wade 1-3, Brown 0-1, Edwards 0-3), North Carolina 6-20 (Pinson 3-7, Jackson 2-4, Berry II 1-5, Williams 0-1, Britt 0-3). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Kansas State 30 (Edwards 7), North Carolina 43 (Johnson 10). Assists: Kansas State 11 (Edwards 4), North Carolina 20 (Jackson 6). Total Fouls: Kansas State 22, North Carolina 20. Att: 13,189.
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett