For Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, March had been filled with magic.
The crafty Kentucky point guard was MVP of the Southeastern Conference Tournament while leading the Wildcats to the championship.
Even better, for UK’s first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, product was, arguably, the best point guard in the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness is a fickle force, however, and a joy ride can give way to a crash landing in the course of a single game.
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For Gilgeous-Alexander, the NCAA Tournament round of 16 was anything but sweet.
Deploying a physical and ferocious defense, No. 9 seed Kansas State ended No. 5 seed Kentucky’s season with a 61-58 victory in the South Region semifinals before 15,616 fan in Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta.
The victory advances Bruce Weber’s Wildcats (25-11) into Saturday’s region finals against Cinderella No. 11 seed Loyola ( 31-5).
Given a South Region that broke wide open with the top four seeds all eliminated on the first weekend of the tournament, Kentucky failed to take advantage.
John Calipari’s Wildcats ended their season 26-11.
“Congratulations to Kansas State. They played well,” Calipari said. “They played the kind of game, a physical game, and did what they had to do.”
The physicality K-State brought to the game seemed to especially impact Gilgeous-Alexander.
As Kentucky advanced past Davidson and Buffalo last week in Boise, the 6-foot-6, 180 pounder averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals while making 15-of-25 shots.
Kansas State made things much tougher on Gilgeous-Alexander in Atlanta.
“They played really physically,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They did a really good job in the second half keeping me out of the paint.”
With K-State putting bodies on Gilgeous-Alexander anytime he entered the lane, the Kentucky guard never seemed to get in an offensive rhythm.
He finished 2-of-10 from the floor, 0-of-2 on three-point tries with five rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. Cashing in 11-of-12 foul shots allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to finish with 15 points.
“It was a physical game … and it wears you down,” Calipari said. “I thought Shai got worn down.”
With its point guard stifled, Kentucky never seemed to find a consistent offensive flow as a team, either.
Kansas State began the game with a 13-1 outburst. It felt like UK was playing uphill the rest of the night.
With forwards PJ Washington (18 points, 15 rebounds but 8-of-20 on foul shots) and Kevin Knox (13 points, eight boards) providing a spark, UK fought back and even pushed its nose into the lead by a point twice, late.
Kentucky was up 57-56 with 1:32 left when Hamidou Diallo was called for fouling K-State’s Barry Brown while trying to rebound a missed Washington free throw.
Brown hit both foul shots, and Kentucky would never see the lead again.
Still, UK got a final shot, down three, to force overtime. A called play to get a trey for Wenyen Gabriel went awry, however.
Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander tried a rushed trey from the top of the key ahead of the final buzzer.
It banged hard off the backboard.
“Felt a little off at first,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the shot. “I saw it going toward the (backboard) and I thought it was going to bank in. Obviously, it didn’t.”
So instead of converting what was, by seed average, the easiest path to the Final Four for any team since Kansas in 2008, UK fell short of the season’s final weekend for the third year in a row.
Kentucky won 22 of the first 25 NCAA tourney games it played with Calipari as its coach. The Cats have gone 6-4 in their 10 most recent Big Dance contests, however.
As endings go, this was not the one Kentucky fans would have wished for Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the more likable stories of recent UK seasons.
A relatively unheralded recruit (by Kentucky standards) who was neither a McDonald’s All-American nor a consensus five-star prospect, Gilgeous-Alexander became the best player on UK’s 2017-18 roster through old-fashioned hard work.
His early-morning individual workouts eventually led some teammates to join him. That helped transform UK from the team that lost four in a row in February to the one that had won 10 of 11 before Kansas State.
It seems likely Thursday night was the final time Gilgeous-Alexander will wear Kentucky blue-and-white. He has been steadily climbing NBA mock drafts.
“Not at all,” he said, asked if he had thought about his future. “I have not thought about anything as far as my future.”
For Gilgeous-Alexander, what had been a joy ride through March concluded with a very rough landing.
“It sucks,” he said.