Tears filled Kansas State’s locker room after its season came to an end with a 56-49 loss to Kentucky on Friday at the Scottrade Center.
Coach Bruce Weber said some of those tears were joyful, a sign that K-State players were proud of their hard work and improvement throughout a season that carried low expectations, but most were sorrowful.
For the second straight year, No. 9 seed K-State bowed out of the NCAA Tournament early, losing its opening game.
“We just didn’t have it tonight,” Weber said.
It was a discouraging result for a team that overachieved through stretches of the regular season to be a part of March Madness. Though No. 8 seed Kentucky and its roster of future NBA players entered the game as a heavy favorite, Weber was confident his team could pull off an upset.
Weber thought an inspired effort, and maybe a few three-pointers, would be enough. And maybe it would have been, but this was one of K-State’s worst shooting games.
K-State gave itself a chance by playing solid defense, limiting Kentucky to 29 points in the first half and holding it to 38 percent shooting, but it could do nothing against a lineup that featured taller defenders at every position.
“It hurts, because we did exactly what we wanted to do,” K-State senior guard Will Spradling said. “We had a great defensive scheme and we executed it well. We guarded them really well, but we couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end. We never got into a flow.”
Even Marcus Foster, the team’s top scorer, struggled. He didn’t make his first three-pointer until the closing moments and scored 15 points on 18 shots. With Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young – all 6-feet-6 – hounding Foster, he failed to find open looks and had one of his least efficient games.
Few teammates stepped up to help. Shane Southwell had 11 points, but he only got two in the first half. Thomas Gipson scored 10 points, but only two came in the second half. Freshman Wesley Iwundu scored seven points.
Spradling might have struggled the most. The only shot he made came with 32.3 seconds remaining, and he battled foul trouble the whole way.
“Their length really bothered us,” Spradling said.
Maybe it was to be expected. After all, K-State dug itself a hole before the game even started.
The game oddly began with Kentucky leading 1-0 before the opening tip, because walk-on Brian Rohleder dunked during pregame warm-ups. The penalty is rare, but a little-known NCAA rules states that players aren’t permitted to dunk less than 20 minutes before a game. Rohleder was caught dunking 19 minutes, 58 seconds before the tip-off.
“To me, that is sad,” Weber said. “I know it is a rule, but sometimes common sense has to prevail. Come down and say, ‘Hey kids, don’t dunk.’ I think a good ref would do that, but that’s just my opinion.”
Weber supported Rohleder afterward, telling him that he loved him.
Still, those two seconds started K-State down an ugly path.
Kentucky, behind 19 points from Julius Randle and 18 points from Aaron Harrison, led 29-23 at halftime and benefited from a slight cushion throughout the second half.
K-State’s best shot at making it a game came when Southwell hit a three that made the score 35-33 with 14:54 remaining. Kentucky called a timeout and Southwell waved to the crowd. For the first time, the arena was backing K-State. Even Wichita State and Kansas fans were clapping along.
But Kentucky answered with seven straight points and grabbed control.
Young hit a jumper, Aaron Harrison made a driving layup and Randle converted a tough shot near the rim. In between, Southwell was hit with a technical foul for scowling, and yelling, at an official following a no-call against Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein.
“I didn’t think he was vertical, straight up and down. I gave the ref a stare,” Southwell said. “He didn’t like it.”
Cauley-Stein, who went to Olathe Northwest, caused problems for K-State players all game, blocking four shots and altering countless more. On this occasion, Southwell thought he had drawn a foul, but it wasn’t called. A few moments later, Weber was arguing with officials when they waved off a tip-in by Iwundu on a questionable goaltending call.
There was enough time for K-State to come back, but the momentum it previously had was gone.
With the victory, Kentucky advanced to play Wichita State on Sunday. K-State ended its season at 20-13.
“I’m just disappointed for the guys,” Weber said. “We didn’t give them enough offensively to get over the hump. We didn’t have enough firepower. We didn’t make enough shots to give ourselves a chance at victory.”