ST. LOUIS — The way the game was billed, it seemed like Kentucky would beat Kansas State in a blowout.
But the Wildcats wouldn’t let it go that easy on Friday, fighting all the way up until the final seconds in a 56-49 loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
It was a game that featured a pre-tip technical on walk-on Brian Rohleder, and a second-half technical on Shane Southwell for glaring at an official. But despite any bad thing that happened to K-State (20-13), it kept fighting.
On one possession in the first half, Kentucky (25-10) pulled down five offensive rebounds, but it could never score. Kentucky pushed its lead up to as many as 13 in the second half, but the Wildcats cut it down to six late in the ball game.
And that’s why, even with the season coming to an end, K-State coach Bruce Weber said there was plenty to be proud of.
For a team that was once 2-3, and making the tournament seemingly a stretch, the Wildcats pulled together and turned their season around to make the postseason. And when the odds seemed stacked against them with a tough draw in Kentucky, they battled as they had all season.
“In the locker room there’s some tears,” Weber said. “Tears of joy from the season that we had, but also tears of sadness that we just didn’t have enough to continue. You don’t want the season to end ever and I am really proud of this group. And, you know, it was just a game. I thought we did everything — they did everything we had asked. We were well prepared. We made it tough on them on the defensive end. “
K-State trailed by six at halftime after using a 6-0 run to come back from what had been a 12-point deficit with 2:22 left in the half. Southwell hit a 3 to open the second half and cut the lead to three.
After Kentucky pushed its lead out to 33-26, the Wildcats used a 7-2 lead to pull within two points after another Southwell 3. K-State nearly stole the ball on the inbounds from Kentucky, as Nigel Johnson dove on the floor and knocked the ball out of bounds in a scramble.
The momentum didn’t last though, as the Wildcats picked up three fouls in the next minute and Kentucky pushed its lead to 39-33. Southwell drove to the basket with under 13 to play and took contact from a defender, piling down to the floor. He got up and glared at the official, who eventually gave him a technical foul. Kentucky responded by pushing ahead 42-33.
“I thought that I got to the lane and I got into his body,” Southwell said. “I didn’t think that he was vertical, I thought he came down I kind of just gave the ref a stare and he didn’t like it, I’m going to take the fall for that.”
Southwell cut the score to 44-38 with a 3-pointer with 10:58 to play, his final basket, but K-State wouldn’t get another field goal until a Wesley Iwundu dunk with 3:55 to play to cut a deficit to 49-40.
Trailing 54-41 with 52 seconds to play, the Wildcats got a dunk from Marcus Foster, followed by a 3-pointer from Will Spradling — his only points of the game — followed by a 3 from Foster to cut the lea to 55-49 with 24 seconds left. They never came any closer.
“I’m proud because we didn’t quit at the end of the day,” Thomas Gipson said. “I feel like we’re going to have something to prove next year. We played extremely hard and we just continued to fight. We gave them a game — their skill and athleticism gave them an extra push.”
Foster led K-State with 15 points and five assists with no turnovers. Southwell had 11 and Gipson scored 10. Kentucky was led by Julius Randle’s 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Aaron Harrison scored 18 points.
The Wildcats finish the season on a four-game losing streak, but it might seem hard to remember that at one time they looked far from an NCAA tournament-caliber team. Will Spradling said after the team started poorly, people started to doubt, stopped caring and stopped watching.
But, still, the Wildcats turned the season around, managed to position themselves in the middle of the Big 12 Conference, and battle the preseason No. 1 team on a national stage in the NCAA tournament.
For all of that, Southwell said their pride isn’t broken.
“I’m still extremely proud,” Southwell said. “I’m proud of my teammates, proud of the coaching staff, and also proud of myself. A lot of people from where I am from don’t get this opportunity to play at this level and get a chance to graduate from college and even play against some of the teams we played against and played in the Big 12. So I am honestly, I would just say, extremely proud.”
Rohelder draws rare technical foul
Before Friday’s game tipped off, K-State walk-on Brian Rohleder was assessed a technical foul for dunking in pre-game warm-ups.
According to NCAA rule 10, section 4 article 1.e, a team member dunking or attempting to dunk a dead ball before or during the game, or during any intermission can be assessed an administrative foul.
This rule means no player is allowed to dunk with less than 20 minutes before the game starts. Rohleder reportedly dunked with 19:58 on the clock.
“I told Brian Rohleder I love him,” Weber said. “He is the greatest kid in the world. To me that’s sad, you know. I know it’s a rule, but sometimes common sense has to be — come down and say, ‘Hey, guys don’t dunk.’ I told the guys I love him. Hey, he made a mistake. “That dude is a walk-on engineer, studies ‘til five in the morning, comes to practice, plays harder than anybody else, goes and studies again. And, you know, he had tears in his eyes. And, you know, it’s just — that doesn’t make sense to me. But that’s just my opinion.”
Rohleder said after the game he knew he made a mistake and that his teammates supported him.
“The rules are the rules, either way,” he said. “I don’t know what to think of it. It happened and you’ve got to move on from there.”
DJ Johnson suffers injury
It wasn’t the homecoming DJ Johnson was hoping for, as the St. Louis native played just four minutes before leaving the game with an injury.
Weber said after the game that Johnson broke his foot and they didn’t know until halftime. The Wildcats were low on post depth all season long, and it was the first time since the beginning of the year either Johnson or Gipson were ruled out do to injury.
“I don’t know how bad a break, but I know he broke his foot,” Weber said. “It was one of our biggest fears going into the season. We had, you know, as a staff we had hoped to get one more big. We never were able to. We were able to survive with Thomas and DJ and Nino (Williams) and Shane for the most part until this last little stretch. And those guys gave their all and obviously it would have been nice to have DJ just to rest Thomas a little bit.”