The game, and Kansas State’s basketball season, was over. But Bruce Weber wasn’t ready to leave.
Shortly after the No. 4 seed Wildcats lost to the No. 13 seed UC Irvine Anteaters 70-64 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at SAP Center, Weber walked to the edge of the court and embraced every single K-State player as they marched toward the locker room.
He shook hands with most of them and told them all to keep their heads up. They accomplished a lot this season by winning 25 games and sharing a Big 12 championship. This was one of his favorite groups to coach, and you could see that by the way he hugged departing seniors Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade.
This isn’t the ending he wanted for them.
“To watch them cry like babies is just so, so sad because they are done,” Weber said. “You just hate it to come to an end. It has gone very, very fast. This year has gone fast. The last four years have gone fast. It wasn’t all balloons and celebrations, but they do it the right way. They came here for the right reasons and they are leaving with an unbelievable legacy and you can’t be more proud of them.”
The Wildcats could have played a little better in their final game together, though. Turns out the crowd of experts that picked UC Irvine to upset K-State were right.
For the second time in six years, Weber’s team was unable to follow up on a memorable regular season with NCAA Tournament wins. This loss, in many ways, mirrored K-State’s 2013 loss to La Salle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, when the Wildcats coincidentally last won a conference title and were playing as a No. 4 seed in Kansas City.
“Just sad, man,” Brown said. “We wanted to do something really special. We did something special in our regular season, and we wanted to kind of carry that momentum over to this tournament, and just didn’t execute, didn’t hit some shots, didn’t guard the right way we should have. We just weren’t able to come up with the win.
This loss could haunt Brown for a long time. The senior guard has been the driving force of this team all season, but he only scored five points on nine shots. K-State had three opportunities to tie UC Irvine or take the lead in the final moments and squandered all three.
The game seemed to slip away from K-State when he uncharacteristically threw the ball out of bounds with 41 seconds remaining. The Wildcats were only down two at the time, and it seemed like Brown wanted to try and tie the score with a driving layup.
“It is just a tough pill to swallow thinking back to the game,” Brown said, “and knowing I could have done better.”
Foul trouble was a factor. He picked up two early fouls and spent the majority of the first half on the bench.
It would have been interesting to see how things would have played out if not for Brown’s foul trouble and Weber’s decision to sit him for the final 14 minutes of the half.
“Even if I didn’t shoot the ball, but if I was out there the whole first half I would have been out there playing and had a little bit better feel for their defense, the ball and the court,” Brown said, “just being out there.”
Instead Brown picked up a pair of fouls (one on defense and the other away from the ball on offense) in the opening six minutes. Brown thought they were both bad calls.
“I didn’t feel like I earned them,” he said.
In any case, Weber never seriously thought about trusting his senior guard to play with two fouls, because K-State was in the lead for most of the first half.
That is not a new strategy for Weber. He rarely ever plays anyone with two fouls in the first half. But this seemed like an appropriate time to make an exception. The Wildcats were already without senior forward Dean Wade (injured right foot).
K-State pulled ahead 26-16 without Brown on the floor, but the Anteaters tied the score at 30-30 by halftime with the Wildcats trying to steal minutes without their best player. Cartier Diarra and Shaun Neal-Williams also picking up two fouls hurt.
“We came into the game confident with belief that we could win, and I think that belief showed throughout the game, especially when we were down early, and we settled in,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “We made some defensive adjustments and changes and made the plays to come out on top.”
Kamau Stokes led the Wildcats with 18 points and Makol Mawien had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard both scored 19 points for UC Irvine. They were at their best in the second half, hitting several big three-pointers.
K-State players walked off the court in a somber mood and remained sad in the locker room.
In seven seasons under Weber since 2013, K-State has lost in the round of 64 four times and reached the Elite Eight once in five NCAA Tournament appearances.
“I thought we were ready to play,” Weber said. “There was no question about that. In 2013 I blamed myself that I didn’t get their attention enough to make them realize how good La Salle was. These guys, I think they knew how good UC Irvine was. We came ready to play, they just made incredible plays and we didn’t.”
The Wildcats seemed like they were in danger of losing this one from the start without Wade.
K-State twice threatened to pull away from UC Irvine, taking a 17-9 lead midway through the first half and then moving ahead 26-16 at the 7:12 mark.
But the Anteaters used their size and a zone defense to stay in the game. UC Irvine rattled off seven straight points to pull within 17-16 and then ended the half on a 12-2 run that featured Max Hazzard hitting a three at the buzzer.
A year after making it to the Elite Eight, K-State is heading home after an early March exit.
“It’s a really sad day,” Weber said, “mainly because of these guys and Dean Wade, to be the last time you have a chance to coach them, to be in the locker room with them. They are such a special group, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked as players, as people, and they’re unbelievable representatives of Kansas State University. Can’t be more proud.”