ATLANTA—The locker room was nearly silent except for the rip of Velcro separating as Kansas State players peeled their nameplates and logos off the walls. Outside, Loyola Chicago was cutting down the nets at the South regional, victors in a matchup virtually no one predicted. Down the hall, Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber and a handful of players tried to make sense of the sudden, stark end to what had been a dream season.
But in the locker room, there was virtual silence. Dean Wade, the star forward whose ill-timed foot injury robbed Kansas State of 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, answered a handful of inquiries about his status and his future plans, his jersey infuriatingly sweat-free. Around the small locker room tucked into a corner of Philips Arena, his teammates stared into silence or at their sneakers.
What is there to say, really? Kansas State’s miracle run through the NCAA Tournament — preseason No. 8 pick in the Big 12, No. 9 seed in the South region, a landmark victory against Kentucky on Thursday — ended hard and ended fast against Loyola in a 78-62 loss. The Wildcats shot 35 percent from the field to Loyola’s 57 percent, and got outrebounded underneath and outhustled in the open court.
No one knew it at the time, of course, but when Kansas State was down 7-5 with less than four minutes elapsed in the game, that was the last time the Wildcats would be within one possession all night. Four minutes later, Loyola was up by 12, and K-State couldn’t get any closer than five points for the rest of the night.
“They jumped out to that big lead in the beginning,” sophomore forward Xavier Sneed said. “It was hard for us to come back from that, and just kept the foot on the gas, and it was just hard to come back.”
Kansas State knew this was a possibility, but knowing and experiencing are two very different things. “I feared [Loyola’s attack]. Our staff feared it,” Weber said. “They were better defensively than I even thought, to be honest. And I thought we might be able to get some things, some looks, but we just didn’t do that.”
Weber tried to buck his team up after the game, telling them of his pride in their effort during a remarkable journey. But there’s no other way to put it: losing stinks.
But the Wildcats have a bit more to take from this visit to the Elite Eight than just some nameplates. “We can do this again,” freshman guard Cartier Diarra said. “It was a fun run. I wish it didn’t end. But we’ve got to move on and get started on the next season.”
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Wade said of this journey. “We know that we’re good now. We knew that we were good before, but now we know we can compete with anyone. We have high expectations for next season.”
Wade will be a key element of that run; his foot injury — which remains a bit of a mystery; even he couldn’t detail it exactly — will likely keep him off the court for a few more weeks. But Kansas State fans can hold onto the hope that, at the moment, he’s not thinking about entering the NBA Draft, and speaks of next season in terms of “we” and “us.” And should he return, he’ll be running with a motivated crew of Wildcats.
“I think we’re just going to just take it all in within the next few days and really cherish what we did,” junior guard Barry Brown Jr. said. “I mean, it sucks right now, but looking back on it, with the expectations of a lot of people, we exceeded a lot, even though we knew what we were capable of ourselves.”
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