Despite the college basketball world speaking in confident tones about a leisurely drive to the Final Four, Kentucky insisted the South Region would be no easy street.
It turned out to be a dead end. Kansas State defeated UK 61-58 Thursday.
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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“PJ was the reason we were in the game,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “He was a monster down low.”
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 UK up 57-56. But if Washington had made more than seven of 18 free throws to that point, UK would have had a larger lead.
“If I make the free throws, we win the game,” Washington said of his 8-for-20 free-throw shooting. “So that says it all right there.”
Meanwhile, Kansas State had no post game, one reason Kentucky shot almost twice as many free throws (37-22).
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 making a contested layup. That left UK trailing 60-58 with 18.4 seconds left.
As he did earlier this season, UK Coach John Calipari second-guessed his decision not to call timeout after Brown put Kansas State ahead.
“I should have called that timeout …,” he said. “But we had worked on something, and I thought we could catch them off guard. (Kansas State is a) veteran team. Should have called timeout. Can’t put that on these guys. That’s right on my shoulders.”
UK hoped to get a shot from the corner for leading scorer Kevin Knox. But Kansas State took away that option. “So we had no where to go,” Quade Green said.
Green missed a jumper. Then Amaad Wainright, who had made nine of 22 free throws coming into the game, made one with 7.7 seconds left to make it 61-58.
This time, Kentucky called timeout with 5.4 seconds left to presumably set up a game-tying three-pointer. The Cats wanted Wenyen Gabriel to take the shot. Again, Kansas State’s defense proved to be a problem, which left the Cats with a contested heave by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He missed.
“It took a little too long to progress,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And then I had to take a tough shot.”
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.
Xavier Sneed led Kansas State with 22 points, one shy of a career high.
Kentucky finished the season with a 26-11 record. Gilgeous-Alexander added 15 points for UK, but he also had five turnovers. Knox scored 13 points.
Kentucky, which had won its last five games and nine of the most recent 10, came into the game on a high.
“Very surprising,” Washington said of the loss. “We didn’t feel we’d lose that game at all.”
Kansas State scored the game’s first seven points and built a 13-1 lead before the first television timeout.
Trailing 33-29 at halftime marked only the second time since the Auburn game on Valentine’s Day that Kentucky trailed at the break. But since UK did not lead in the first half, 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 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 became a signature component of its season: a four-minute game to decide a winner.
In such a circumstance, free throws loom large.
Washington said the accumulation of misses did not make the rim seem smaller.
“I was shooting them straight,” he said. “They ended up rimming out. You’ve got to shoot the next one with confidence. And I felt I did a great job of doing that even though they weren’t falling.”
While several teammates said one player should not shoulder the blame for a season-ending defeat, Gabriel suggested that was how Washington felt.
“He’s going to think about that a lot,” Gabriel said. “He was badly hurt. I don’t know how much worse it can be. I feel for him. I feel like I missed those free throws.”