If it felt too good to be true, it’s because it was. Even though the bracket opened up and San Antonio was in sight, Kentucky couldn’t overcome its own mistakes, falling to Kansas State 61-58 in quite possibly the ugliest basketball game ever played.
Many things led to tonight’s loss – Kansas State’s stingy defense, the 51 fouls that were called, Kentucky turning ice cold – but there’s no other place to start than PJ Washington’s 8-20 performance from the free throw line. It really is a shame because PJ did everything else well. He had 18 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and a major, major block in the final minute, but the only thing people will remember from this game are the twelve points he left on the board. Even two of those would have made the difference. Don’t tell him; he knows.
“I didn’t play good at all,” PJ said afterwards. “As you saw, I went 8 for 20 from the line. I feel like if I would have made at least half of those, we would have won the game, so I didn’t play really good.”
Credit to Kansas State. They honed in on PJ’s weakness like a shark to blood, turning the entire second half into Hack-A-PJ. All season, we’ve joked about him going 1-2, but watching PJ deflate after each missed shot was painful. When he finally hit two in a row to pull Kentucky within three with 6:18 left, Catlanta let out a cathartic cheer. When Kevin Knox hit a three on Kentucky’s next possession, hope began to spread. When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sliced to the basket to give the Cats the lead with 4:04 left, the tide started to turn. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. Every time Kentucky made a move, Kansas State responded, either with a big shot or a foul to squelch momentum.
It’s not right to pin this game solely on PJ Washington. There were plenty of mistakes to go around. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been brilliant this season, especially this postseason, but his five turnovers were beyond costly. The one that hurt the most came after he gave Kentucky the lead with four minutes left. Instead of Kentucky going up by three or four, Shai turned it over, leading to a Kansas State layup and foul on the other end. PJ Washington managed to get the lead back and tie it up again, but in the end, Kentucky didn’t make the plays that mattered. Even though Kevin Knox was wide open, Quade Green took a desperation three that came up way short with nine seconds left, and with the chance to tie it to take it to overtime, a three from Shai clanked off the rim and, just like that, Kentucky’s season was over.
As he always does, Calipari shouldered the blame for the loss, especially not calling a timeout with 19 seconds left, which resulted in Quade’s ill-advised three. He brought it up first thing in the press conference.
“I should have called that timeout late with 19 seconds to go, but we had worked on something, and I thought we could catch them off guard. Veteran team, should have called a time-out. Can’t put that on these guys. That’s right on my shoulders.”
It should never have come to that. Somehow, a Kansas State team that was hardly known for their offense couldn’t miss, connecting on 41% from beyond the arc. Xavier Sneed had five threes, and, really, the only time Kentucky was able to put together some momentum was when he was on the bench in foul trouble in the second half. On the flip side, Kentucky was frigid, hitting only 3-12 (25%) from three and 16-42 (38.1%) from the field. In a sign of how ugly this game was, the Cats only hit six field goals in the first half. It was that bad.
Kansas State led the Big 12 in steals, and they had 11 tonight to Kentucky’s five. Another disparity: assists. Kansas State had twice as many as Kentucky, 12-6. Almost every time Kentucky’s lost this year, it’s because they haven’t shared the ball; by slowing down the game and getting physical, Kansas State made that Kentucky’s tragic flaw.
So, another season cut short just as we were getting to know this team. This year’s exit is especially frustrating knowing the path that lied ahead. And while it may not be of any solace right now, this very young team will return several key players. They’ll remember this moment. And hopefully learn from it.
But still…what a crappy ending.