Frustrating season for Cats ends with 75-69 loss to Kansas State

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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A frustrating season came to an abrupt end for Kentucky on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

After winning their tournament opener on Friday night, ending a four-year tournament drought, the Wildcats came up short in the second round, dropping a 75-69 decision to Kansas State. The third-seeded K-State Wildcats (25-9) earned a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen and will take on Michigan State in the East Region semifinals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.

“(It was a) tough way to end,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We had some guys really fight like crazy and then had a couple of guys offensively not play their game the way they played all year, but that stuff happens in this tournament.”

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Kentucky (22-12) led 60-56 with under four minutes remaining, but Kansas State went on a 13-2 run and knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to grab the lead for good. The Wildcats missed all 12 of their attempts from behind the arc in the opening half, but were 5-for-9 in the second half.

Oscar Tshiebwe turned in another solid performance with a double-double of 25 points and 18 rebounds. Cason Wallace added 21 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds, while Chris Livingston chipped in with 11 points and seven boards. It marked Tshiebwe’s 20th double-double of the season and the 48th of his UK career, second in school history.

However, normally dead-eye shooter Antonio Reeves struggled mightily, going 1-for-15 with his only basket – a 3-pointer – coming after the game was decided. Jacob Toppin played well defensively but also had a hard time scoring, going 1-for-7. That pair combining for 2-for-22 and 16 turnovers contributed to the loss.

Kentucky struggled from the field and made just four 3-pointers on 20 attempts. The Wildcats also committed 16 turnovers and struggled to contain Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell, who led all scorers with 27 points.

“This is what happened in certain games,” Calipari said. “You know, you turn around, and you are, like, guys, you can’t — you don’t have to make them all. You just can’t miss them all. We’ve had games like that. It’s, you know — you just hope in the NCAA Tournament you can go on a run. And I thought after the first game, where we fought and we didn’t shoot it great, but I thought that was a good sign.”

It was a physical game from the beginning and Kansas State prevailed with toughness and some long-range shooting when it counted.

“Dudes,” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said. “We got dudes. That’s what it takes. I mean, people get all caught up in the coaching and all of that stuff. It’s dudes.”

After going 0-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half, Nowell got them untracked with a rainbow trey over the outstretched arm of Tshiebwe. Kansas State made 5 of 8 3-pointers after intermission.

Despite the team’s struggles, Calipari praised his squad for remaining committed during the roller-coaster ride that featured many twists and turns.

“Like I told them after the game, what this team had been through individually, as a group, how they stayed together,” he said. “They loved each other. They covered for each other. They were there for each other, and they worked their butts off for us as a staff and me as a head coach and each other.”

Livingtson, a freshman, agreed with his coach.

“It was definitely like a journey of ups and downs,” he said. “We fought with each other. We learned a lot of things about each other. Learned about each other as a group and as individuals. I feel like it’s a lot, but I wish we could have continued our season on today, but I feel like we had a lot of things to be proud about looking back on the season for sure.”

Tshiebwe and his five senior classmates are eligible to return next season, but Calipari isn’t counting on them coming back for another season.

“My guess is they will all leave,” he said. “That’s my guess, but I have not talked to them all. I think you start winding down this COVID stuff where that’s your extra year, but these kids accomplished a lot. We’ll sit down. Now is not the time. I hugged them all after the game, told them I loved them, and appreciated everything they’ve done. But those conversations will be for a little later date.”