Despite the college basketball world speaking in confident tones about a cruise to the Final Four, Kentucky insisted the South Region would be no easy street.
It was a dead end. Kansas State defeated UK 61-58.
PJ Washington was a tower of strength around the basket and seemingly a puddle of nerves at the foul line.
But Washington gave Kentucky something Kansas State sorely lacked — a presence around the basket.
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Washington posted a double-double, which included 18 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. His putback of his own miss while being fouled put Kentucky ahead 57-56. But if Washington had made more than seven of 18 free throws to that point, UK would have had a larger lead.
Meanwhile, Kansas State had no post game, one reason Kentucky shot almost twice as many free throws.
Washington made one of two free throws to tie it at 58-58 with 1:14 left.
After a first shot was blocked and a second missed, Kansas State got a third opportunity by getting a 50-50 ball and calling timeout to avoid a tie-up.
Barry Brown Jr. made the third time a charm by driving to a contested layup. That put UK behind 60-58 with 18.4 seconds left.
Quade Green missed an ill-advised jumper. Then Amaad Wainright, who had made nine of 22 free throws this season coming into the game, made one with 7.7 seconds left to set the final score.
Kentucky called time with 5.4 seconds left to presumably set up a game-tying three-pointer. But all the Cats got was a contested heave by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He missed.
Kansas State (25-11) advanced to the South Region finals and will play Loyola Chicago for a berth in the Final Four. Loyola defeated Nevada 69-68 in the first game of the night in Atlanta. Brown scored 13 points, while Xavier Sneed led Kansas State with 22 points, one shy of a career high.
With Michigan routing Texas A&M 99-72 earlier in the night, Kentucky was left to carry — again — the SEC banner.
UK finished the season with a 26-11 record. Gilgeous-Alexander added 15 points, but also five turnovers for the Cats. Knox scored 13 points.
Kansas State had two baskets in the final 9:52, which breathed life into something Coach Bruce Weber said on Wednesday.
“That’s one of my biggest fears for our team: how we’re going to find a way to score,” he said.
Kentucky, which had won its last five games and nine of the most recent 10, came into the game on a high.
“I think our confidence level right now is as high as it’s been all season,” Knox said.
Kansas State scored the game’s first seven points and built a 13-1 lead before the first television timeout.
Meanwhile, Hamidou Diallo, the hero of the second-round victory over Buffalo, picked up two fouls inside the first three minutes.
Diallo later limped off the court and went to the locker room. He returned at the 4:11 mark. Then 54 seconds later, he picked up his third foul in a scoreless half when called for pushing off in an attempt to get an offensive rebound. UK fans booed and assistant coach John Robic used a derisive wave to express his view of the call.
Quade Green, Knox and Wenyen Gabriel all had two fouls. This accentuated the absence of Jarred Vanderbilt, who watched from the bench in street clothes because of a lower left leg injury. On Wednesday, UK Coach John Calipari noted how valuable Vanderbilt could be in case of foul trouble.
For all the booing and waving, the referees helped Kentucky. They called 16 fouls on Kansas State in the first half. Kansas State came into the game averaging 18.1 fouls.
Kentucky shot the double-bonus six times in the final 5:55. That helped narrow the deficit to 33-29 at halftime. It also eased the burden of 6-for-23 shooting. Gilgeous-Alexander, UK’s indispensable leader, made only one of seven shots.
It was only UK’s second halftime deficit since the Auburn game during the four-game losing streak on Valentine’s Day. But since UK did not lead in the first half and trailed the final 19:29, a four-point deficit did not seem so bad.
Kentucky, which had a 6-6 record when trailing at halftime, erased the deficit 70 seconds into the second half.
Two Knox free throws tied at at 33-33.
A three-pointer by Green with 17:18 left gave Kentucky its first lead: 36-35. After a turnover, Kansas State called time.
Sneed, a 32-percent three-point shooter, rose to the occasion. His three-pointer gave UK’s first lead an 87-second shelf life.
A technical foul on Kentucky’s bench energized Kansas State. After Brown made the one technical free throw, Sneed hit another three-pointer to put Kansas State ahead 45-38 with 13:59 left.
UK’s deficit grew to 47-38 with 13:18 left. Knox and Washington led a counter. Hope grew when Sneed picked up his fourth foul with 8:24 left.
With Washington leading the way, Kentucky ground down the deficit to set up what’s been a signature component of its season: a four-minute game to decide a winner.