Had it counted, perhaps Barry Brown’s dunk at the end of Kansas State’s 74-67 straitjacketing of Kansas on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum would have embodied a night the script was flipped.
The gesture had some resonance, anyway, intended as a turnabout homage of sorts to a particularly low point in K-State’s eight-game losing streak to KU — the rival that Brown and fellow seniors Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes had never beaten.
“Shoutout Brannen Greene,” Brown said, laughing, referring to Greene’s dunk at the end of KU’s 77-59 romp over the Wildcats in 2016.
But it would be tough for K-State to proclaim a highlight of a play that that was ruled after the buzzer, and the truth is the pinnacle was delivered about 48 seconds before.
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On Kansas’ telltale 23rd turnover of the night, Cartier Diarra’s steal and breakaway windmill dunk was the moment this essentially ended.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore with the 45-inch vertical leap conjured the scene that will stand for this game for years to come and compelled an already fevered crowd to erupt with the boom of a jet engine.
“The noise, I have no words for that,” Stokes said. “It was unbelievable.”
Diarra understood this was an exclamation point on a game that said many things at once: that the Wildcats (17-5 overall, 7-2 Big 12) had won their seventh straight Big 12 game; that they had the resilience to recover from a stretch in which they made just two of 20 field goals while apparently befuddled by a zone defense; that they stood alone in first place in the conference.
No one said it quite this way, but they had to know something else, too: They are simply the better team right now than 13th-ranked Kansas (17-6), which is a pedestrian 6-4 in Big 12 play befitting the absence of Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa and a talented young cast that has yet to blend.
Kansas State is the better team right now because basketball still rewards team play: K-State defended voraciously, shared the ball dynamically (17 assists on 25 baskets) — other than a 10-minute stretch when it was paralyzed by the zone — and scored from all over the floor because of it.
The right now part is a mighty fine thing, and if Diarra had cable television he might have been watching ESPN late Tuesday or early Wednesday to see if his dunk made SportsCenter.
But the right now part also is fleeting and hardly defining. Which helps explain why coach Bruce Weber could have done without that particular punctuation on the game.
When Diarra revealed at the postgame news conference that he had considered adding another dimension to the dunk by going between his legs with the ball, Weber alongside cringed and said, “Oh, God.”
For that matter, Weber revealed that he actually was angry when Diarra went into windmill mode, wanting to see not bells and whistles but focus and finish.
The “giddiness” of the team after that play made the score 69-61 exasperated him.
“Get the points, get back on defense, stop them, finish the game,” Weber said.
You could call him persnickety, or you might even say he’s, well, tilting at windmills. But his broader point is on point when it comes to where K-State goes from here.
Special days are in the grasp of a team largely intact from last year’s Elite Eight run, a team that clearly has found itself after a puzzlingly sluggish start. Especially since its grinding defense now seems to be something it can count on consistently.
But this also is merely halfway through the conference season, with this team’s legacy entirely open-ended. It has to stay on-task and avoid the sedative of self-satisfaction if it’s going to reach its considerable potential.
The very flow of the game Tuesday illustrated that, after a brisk start for the Wildcats that pointed to a runaway.
On the way to a 14-6 lead, the only shot they missed in their first seven was when a Stokes three-point attempt was blocked — and went right to Xavier Sneed for a layup.
But the series being what it’s been in the recent past, K-State fans had plenty of moments for doubt to seep in along the way and maybe even figure same ol’, same ol’ was just waiting to play out.
The Wildcats fizzled midway through the first half after Self uncorked a zone defense that enabled a 13-0 Kansas binge and rendered K-State somewhere between tentative and immobile offensively.
K-State went more than nine minutes without making a basket and hit just one of 14 to end the half trailing 33-30.
And it didn’t look much different at the start of the second half — even after new football coach Chris Klieman took the microphone at the intermission and exhorted the crowd to “blow the roof off this place” in the next 20 minutes.
Brown and Wade soon scored every point in a 13-5 K-State run. But K-State kept missing free throws (nine of its first 18) to let the Jayhawks linger … until a Sneed three-pointer set up the magic of the final minute and a memorable signature play.
It will all feel like a mirage, though, if this is the highlight of the season.
“Long way to go,” Weber said. “I hope it’s not finished. That was my message to the guys after.”