A year of pulled muscles and set plays and big dreams is gone in seven seconds of chaos. Twelve months, one coaching change, 35 games, more than 100 practices — and those last few moments will hang over it all. One wild last game, and Kansas State basketball goes from a shot at school history to a complicated and conflicted memory.
Two possessions, one final minute. Everything changes, and it happens in a blink. More than 18,000 people on their feet. Maybe a few hundred of them for LaSalle, the rest cheering for K-State, even the Kansas fans roaring through a remarkable comeback after a rotten first half.
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The Wildcats, usually so measured and sturdy, saw their season dissolve with a mess of inconsistency in a 63-61 loss to LaSalle in their first game of the NCAA Tournament at the Sprint Center on Friday.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” K-State senior Rodney McGruder said.
The margins in this sport, and especially this tournament, are excruciatingly small. Millions of dollars and the public reputations of men ride a razor’s edge. K-State could not have played much worse in the first half, or much better in the first 16 minutes or so of the second half.
The difference between an all-time comeback and a footnote as one of this year’s tournament flops is a final minute that went limp.
K-State has the ball and a one-point lead. K-State’s Jordan Henriquez — brilliant until now — fouls going after a rebound. LaSalle’s Jerrell Wright, whose foul trouble helped K-State’s comeback, makes both free throws. Henriquez cuts a set play short to drive toward the basket, a spinning jumper banging off the rim. Wright rebounds, gets fouled, and makes a free throw to push LaSalle’s lead to one, the ball now in K-State point guard Angel Rodriguez’s hands.
Every coach has a different philosophy here. Some, like KU’s Bill Self, have a pet play. He calls his “Chop.” Mario Chalmers made it famous. K-State’s Bruce Weber likes to stay out of the way. Let his players go against a defense without the luxury of setting up. That’s how they won at Oklahoma.
This time, it bogs down in the moment, in the chaos. McGruder — the player who K-State would prefer to take the shot — sets up on the baseline but can’t break free. LaSalle knows who he is, too. Rodriguez keeps dribbling, no better options, the clock down to 5 seconds, now 4, now 3. He drives toward the basket.
Weber tries to call timeout. Later, he’ll remember seeing 2.2 seconds on the clock when he screamed for it. Doesn’t matter. The officials don’t hear him or ignore him. Rodriguez goes to his right. Weber has said his point guard’s biggest strength and weakness is his willingness to take on giants. The shot is off-balance, and has virtually no chance. The buzzer sounds. LaSalle celebrates. The Wildcats hold back tears.
“Sometimes things aren’t meant to be,” Weber says.
Out of the chaos comes a painful nothing. There is no more season, not for this group. The judgments started even before the tears. This is a complicated thing.
None of these players chose the coach they ended up playing for, but they bonded and had one of the school’s most successful seasons anyway. They beat Florida together, in this building just before Christmas, and played so much better after that.
They won more regular season games than any team in school history, and took a share of the conference title for the first time in 36 years. Mitch Richmond, Steve Henson, Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen never did that. But McGruder, Henriquez, Rodriguez and Martavious Irving did. They’ll be remembered forever on a banner in Bramlage Coliseum for that.
But there is another side to their story, too. This is how it goes in college basketball. Lose to a No. 13 seed — a team that had to win Wednesday just to get in the field of 64 — and you’ll be remembered for that, too. This will be remembered as another group that couldn’t beat Kansas. Another team that didn’t advance.
Those last few moments are chaos. They are fast. When it goes like this, they are also unforgiving. They are forever. This is the beauty, and the pain.
“It’s been a great ride,” McGruder says. “It just sucks to come up short like this.”