For one night, Kansas State's reserves and role players became stars.
Makol Mawien was the best player on the floor, Xavier Sneed filled up the stat sheet, Amaad Wainright hit shots, Cartier Diarra sent out assists and Mike McGuirl made a case for a permanent spot in the rotation.
They didn't do enough to defeat Kansas while Barry Brown and Dean Wade were sidelined because of injuries and K-State lost 83-67 in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals on Friday at the Sprint Center, but they played with admirable energy and passion.
If they continue to play this way when the Wildcats get their two best players back at the NCAA Tournament, as coach Bruce Weber expects, well ...
Never miss a local story.
"We could do something that nobody else expects us to," McGuirl said. "We could win some games. We could win more games than anybody expects. That is what we are hoping for."
There is no such thing as a moral victory in college basketball, but this came close.
It's hard to imagine a more nightmarish scene for K-State basketball fans than the site of Wade sitting on the bench with a medical boot on his left foot and Brown resting a few seats away with an ice pack covering his right eye. Yet, that's what the Wildcats had to deal with.
Wade, an all-conference forward, didn’t suit up after injuring his left foot a day earlier. He wanted to play against the Jayhawks, but Weber didn’t want to push him before the NCAA Tournament. Brown, an all-conference guard, was on the floor for less than two minutes before KU guard Devonté Graham inadvertently poked him in the eye. Brown toppled over in pain and was unable to return.
"He wanted to play. He kept saying, I'm good and I held up how many fingers and he didn't know," Weber said of Brown losing vision. "So there was no way we could put him in."
Just like that, he was also done for the night.
Defeat seemed like a forgone conclusion.
Kansas led 43-30 at halftime and surged ahead by 16 early in the second half, but the Wildcats fought back and pulled within 53-51 on a jaw-dropping alley-oop dunk from Diarra to Sneed with 10:19 remaining. When they got a stop and had an opportunity to take the lead moments later the purple-clad fans in attendance were going wild.
Victory seemed attainable.
"It was big-time the fight that everybody had," Sneed said. "To see that from our guys this late in the season is big time. With two of our better players going down and still everyone else going out there and competing with a potential No. 1 seed, it shows that everyone on our team is capable of playing."
The Jayhawks pulled away from there, but the Wildcats took plenty of positives out of this game.
The biggest: Mawien. The sophomore forward has transformed into a go-to scorer over K-State's past three games. He had a career-high 29 points against Kansas, mercilessly hitting mid-range shots from all angles.
"Makol had a great tournament," Weber said. "He's played well. I've told him all along his time is to come. I knew he could score and obviously it's a help."
McGuirl's surprise game could also become a boon for the Wildcats. As junior guard Kamau Stokes continues to struggle, the freshman guard offers another option in the NCAA Tournament.
He had moments of brilliance against the Jayhawks, finishing with four points, four assists and four rebounds in 21 minutes while Stokes missed eight of nine attempts.
"Everytime he goes in there he plays hard for us," Weber said. "He did some nice things today. Kamau is still trying to figure it out. One for nine is not going to get it."
K-State would have rather played KU at full strength, but this could benefit the Wildcats as they turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament and welcome their two best players back to the starting lineup.
"I think it all helps," Weber said. "These guys have been through it, a very tough tournament, a very tough league. Hopefully it prepared them what's coming up next week."