ST. LOUIS — Before they traveled to the Scottrade Center to face mighty Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, the Eastern Kentucky men's basketball team watched Mercer stun Duke on TV.
"It gave me a lot of confidence coming into this game," EKU star guard Glenn Cosey said.
In a result that ought to fill EKU hearts with equal amounts pride and frustration over what could have been, the 15th-seed Colonels pushed Kansas near the brink Friday afternoon.
Starting without fear, Eastern built a 23-14 lead in the first half. The Colonels were tied with Kansas at 32 at the half. When Bill Self's Jayhawks opened the second half on a 13-6 run to lead 45-38, EKU responded with a 10-0 outburst of its own to move ahead 48-45 with 12:31 left.
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Even after KU appeared to have asserted control by pushing in front 64-57, Eastern fired one final salvo, pulling within 64-61 on a Corey Walden follow shot with 3:38 left.
Alas, that was where the Colonels' upset dream died.
Even playing without injured 7-foot freshman star Joel Embiid, Kansas overpowered smaller EKU inside and pulled out an 80-69 victory that — as the saying goes — was much closer than the final score indicates.
"We obviously feel fortunate because I thought Eastern Kentucky was well prepared," Self said afterwards. "They played great. They played loose and certainly gave us everything we wanted."
EKU head coach Jeff Neubauer said his veteran-laden team wasn't seeking an NCAA Tournament moral victory.
"I'm proud we pushed Kansas, but we came here to win the game," Neubauer said. "Our guys did play hard as heck."
On Thursday, Neubauer said three things had to happen for Eastern to take down KU. The Colonels had to force Kansas turnovers, limit their own miscues and rain three-pointers down on the Rock, Chalk, Jayhawks.
Out of the gate, that worked to perfection. EKU's Cosey, a 6-foot senior from Flint, Mich., hit five of his first six shots, four of his first five three-pointers. With 8:43 left in the first half, Kansas had 14 points — and so did Cosey by himself.
"Glenn really got us started," EKU center Eric Stutz said. "He got us settled into the game and really going."
Meanwhile, the scrambling Eastern defense forced Kansas into a whopping 13 turnovers before halftime. EKU had only five.
Eventually, Self turned to a slight freshman, 6-foot, 165-pound Conner Frankamp, to serve as Kansas' primary ball handler. He seemed to calm KU and brought the turnover onslaught to an abrupt halt.
KU had only one after halftime.
"I am not sure if we can win the game without him," Self said of Frankamp. "He is a calming influence."
After halftime, the things that had to go right for EKU to pull the shocker started to go wrong.
Cosey, after his scalding 14-point start, did not score again until he drained a meaningless trey in the final minute.
Corey Walden, the hero of Eastern's run through the OVC Tournament, was saddled with foul trouble. He played only 20 minutes and scored four points before fouling out.
"Very frustrating," Walden said. "I just picked up quick fouls and it limited my play."
Yet through all that, Eastern hung tough, getting strong efforts from Stutz (15 points) and senior forward Tarius Johnson (15 points, five rebounds).
"That showed we had a great team," Stutz said. "... We had to have guys step up (other than Cosey and Walden), and we did that. Not having Corey, basically the whole game because of foul trouble, I think that really did hurt us."
For all of EKU's pluck, you don't see length and athleticism like Kansas had on the floor in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Eventually, the wonderful 6-8 freshman Andrew Wiggins (19 points, several highlight-reel dunks), 6-8 Perry Ellis (14 points, 13 rebounds), 6-9 Tarik Black (12 points, four blocked shots) and 6-8 Jamari Traylor (17 points, 14 rebounds) overwhelmed Eastern's four-guard lineup.
"We didn't have any answer for that," Stutz said.
So while Kansas (25-9) gets ready to face Stanford in Sunday's round of 32, one of the best seasons in Eastern history ended with grit and pride and a frustrating case of "what if?"
"I really believe this is the year of the upset," Cosey said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't pull this off."