Kansas State had one hope against Kentucky. The Wildcats in purple had to shoot threes accurately to survive against the trees of the Wildcats in blue. Fat chance. K-State ranked 211th in NCAA Division I in three-point field goal percentage (34.3). The three-pointer as a weapon looked like, well, a long shot as a way to an upset.
But K-State stunned Kentucky here Thursday night, 61-58, because it made nine of 22 three-pointers (40.9) percent. It was the three that got the Wildcats in purple off to a 13-1 lead and gave them confidence they could play with the Wildcats in blue.
What was it about the three? Why did Kansas State suddenly turn into marksmen?
From the bench, K-State Coach Bruce Weber exhorted his team to move the ball from side to side and get Kentucky’s defense off balance and a little disjointed. An assistant shouted more than once during the game, “Gotta get movement.”
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“This game we moved the ball a little bit more and got some better looks instead of just heaving it up from three,” said K-State guard Barry Brown. “Our shots were able to fall just because they were good, open, uncontested looks.”
“The coaches had been stressing it all week, moving the ball, moving the ball, get good looks,” said K-State guard Mike McGuirl. “We didn’t move the ball against UMBC. We did tonight.”
It was Brown who hit the winning shot with the game tied, 58-58, with 19 seconds left. It wasn’t a three, but an acrobatic layup that gave the Wildcats a 60-58 lead.
“We just played on our principles a little bit, spread the floor, and I was just trying to get in there,” Brown said. “We knew they were trying to block the shot, just with their length they were blocking shots all game. Once I got past my man, I just wanted to get the ball away from them, the people that were going to block my shot.”
On defense the key for K-State was draining the shot clock. McGuirl said the Wildcats studied Kentucky’s offensive sets for several days trying to pick out ways to clog things up, disrupt UK’s timing, and erase time off the shot clock.
“We wanted them to get into situations where they had to use the high-ball screens and rush,” McGuirl said. “We knew all their plays. We were just trying to grind them out and make sure no easy buckets early in the shot clock.”
“We do a great job taking away people’s sets, then they have to go to their ball-screen actions,” said K-State forward Dean Wade. “It was us being very, very focused on scouting reports and being locked in.”
Wade, Kansas State’s 6-foot-10 junior forward and the Wildcats’ best player, did not start and played just eight minutes, all in the first half. He injured his foot in the Big 12 Tournament and did not play in NCAA Tournament wins over Creighton and Maryland-Baltimore County. Wade, who was averaging 16.5 points per game, scored just four points.
K-State paid particular attention to the Kentucky offensive sets involving 6-foot-9 Kevin Knox.
“We just wanted to keep Knox out of the lane, he likes to get to that lane, especially off curls without the ball,” said guard Kamau Stokes. “We did not allow him to roam freely. We wanted to keep him on one side. We wanted to close to the ball and close gaps when he was driving.”
Kansas State knew it was going to be at a size disadvantage. But there is a difference between being short and being lorded over. The Wildcats in purple were not going to let the Wildcats in blue lord over them.
“We had emergency switching. Size-wise they had the advantage,” Stokes said. “If somebody switched on to a big, that’s what it was, then we just help off that. You had to help no matter what. If we fouled, we fouled.”
Kansas State players whooped and hollered all the way to the locker room after the final buzzer. When they got there they had a large cardboard bracket brought into the room. They hollered some more as KANSAS STATE in bold letters was placed on the next line of the bracket, one win away from the Final Four.
The threes had bested the trees.