By LARRY VAUGHT
Blame the turnovers. Blame the spotty shooting. Blame missed free throws. Blame shaky defense. Blame a lack of intensity. Blame John Calipari for not taking a timeout late in the game when UK was down by only two points.
Take your pick because all those things contributed to Kentucky’s stunning 61-58 loss to Kansas State Thursday night in Atlanta in the NCAA Tournament South Region.
With the top four seeds in the South Region eliminated in the first weekend of tourney play, UK assumed the role as South Region favorite but was outplayed and outfought by Kansas State as coach John Calipari lost a Sweet Sixteen game for the first time in seven tries.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed a desperation 3-pointer just before the final buzzer that could have forced overtime.
“It was a pick at the free throw line for Wenyen (Gabriel). It took a little too long to progress and I had to take a tough shot. Obviously I missed and I am disappointed with the result,” Gilgeous-Alexander who had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists but also had a game-high turnovers, said.
“The play just got a little screwed up and that’s why he launched it,” Calipari said.
The play before Kentucky had a chance to rebound a Kansas State missed shot and failed to do so when a loose ball scramble resulted in a K-State timeout and extra possession. Barry Brown got by Gilgeous-Alexander and avoided P.J. Washington’s try to block the shot to score the winning basket 19 seconds left.
Kentucky countered with a faulty possession that ended with Quade Green throwing up a wild 3-pointer – and having Calipari acknowledge he should have taken a timeout.
Kansas State made a free throw with 6.7 seconds left to set the stage for the potential game-tying shot that Gilgeous-Alexander miss.
But all game Kentucky just did not have the rhythm it had shown while winning nine of its previous 10 games and its last five.
Kansas State was smaller, but tougher and more physical. Kentucky shot 37 free throws because K-State was called for 30 fouls but the physical play took UK out of its offensive sync.
“We talk about winning games with stops and we didn’t get many rebounds but we got some big ones down the stretch,” Kansas State coach Bruce Webber said. “We had a lot of guys show a lot of character and hustle tonight.”
Combine that with these numbers make it easy to see why UK lost.
— Kentucky had 15 turnovers that led to 24 Kansas State points. The winners had 10 turnovers but UK got just seven points off those miscues.
— Kansas State had 11 fast break points to two for UK.
— Kansas State had nine 3-point goals, Kentucky had three.
— Kentucky got to the foul line 37 times but made just 23 mainly because P.J. Washington missed 12 of 20 chances.
— Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was 2-for-10 from the field, Wenyen Gabriel 1-for-5 and Hamidou Diallo 1-for-4.
— Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones combined for 21 minutes and had one rebound between them.
— Kentucky made 10 of 19 shots in the second half, but in the first half went 6-for-23.
“The game was physical. It kind of got us out of rhythm and it wears you down,” Calipari said. “Shai wore down late. We turned it over.
“There were plays in the game that we just didn’t make. But you got to give Kansas State credit. They played the way they had to to win the game and they did.
“That’s a hard game to play. If it is allowed to be that way with a lot of physical contact and stuff, you just have to play. However, it is being officiated, you just have to play.”
Kentucky fell behind 13-1 to start the game and that gave Kansas State needed confidence.
“We just wanted to keep fighting. We knew we still had a lot of game left. We just wanted to make sure we got close at halftime. We just didn’t get the results we wanted,” Kevin Knox, who had 13 points and eight rebounds for UK, said.
“Jumping out on the lead like that builds confidence, especially on a great program like Kentucky,” Kansas State’s Xavier Sneed, who had 22 points and nine rebounds, said. “It shows that we can play with those guys.
“We have been feeling disrespected all year. We are just coming out and proving people wrong.”