ATLANTA — Barry Brown Jr. darted into the lane, blowing by everybody in blue, and delivered a rare burst of offense just in the nick of time.
He wasn’t done, either.
As Kansas State celebrated yet another upset in the bracket-busting South, knocking out Kentucky’s’ latest group of fabulous freshmen, Brown leaped over the press table like Superman and waded into the arms of the purple-clad fans.
Xavier Sneed scored 22 points and Brown came through with the shot of the game, banking one in with his left hand before he sprawled out on the court to give gritty K-State a 61-58 victory over Kentucky in the South Regional semifinals Thursday night.
“We knew they were going to try to block the shot with their length,” Brown said. “They were blocking shots all night. Once I got away from my guy, I just wanted to go to the basket.”
Demeaned by many pundits as the worst team still alive in the NCAA Tournament, ninth-seeded K-State got the last laugh against a program that holds eight national titles.
Next up: the regional final against No. 11 seed Loyola, which continued its stunning run in the tournament with a 69-68 victory over Nevada.
Yep, it’s 9 vs. 11 in the Elite Eight for the first time in tournament history, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Just the way it should be in a regional that became the first in NCAA history to have the top four seeds knocked out the very first weekend , including No. 1-ranked Virginia.
Sneed wasn’t around at the end — he was among three players from Kansas State (25-11) to foul out — but Brown seized the moment with 18 seconds remaining.
“He’s the guy you’ve got to go through. He can make plays,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “He missed a couple of them there down the stretch, but he made a big one at the end.”
Brown’s basket made it 60-58, but Kentucky still had a shot.
Two of them, in fact.
Quade Green put up an airball from beyond the arc and Kansas State rebounded, drawing a foul that sent Amaad Wainright to the line for two free throws. He made only one, giving Kentucky (26-11) one more chance to force overtime.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got a decent look at the basket. His shot rimmed out as the horn sounded .
“I just see a lot of grit, a lot of guys that love each other,” Brown said. “We play defense the right way and just play for each other.”
John Calipari was denied a shot at his fifth Final Four in nine seasons as Kentucky’s coach. Fears that his young players would “drink the poison” — the belief that they had an easy path to San Antonio thanks to all the upsets — turned out to be well founded.
“We didn’t play particularly well for us but still had a chance to win,” Calipari said. “The game was physical. … It kind of got us a little out of rhythm and it wears you down. I think Shai got a little worn down ”
P.J. Washington led Kentucky with 18 points. Gilgeous-Alexander was just 2-of-10 shooting, scoring most of his 15 points at the foul line.
With a predominantly blue-clad crowd cheering on Kentucky at Philips Arena — yep, it was definitely “Cat-lanta” — Kansas State raced out to a 13-1 lead before the game was 4 minutes old.
Kentucky finally woke up, closing the gap to 33-29 by halftime. But both teams struggled offensively, and every time it looked like the perennial powerhouse might be on the verge of taking control, K-State had a response.
“We got great stops,” Weber said. “It was such a gutsy performance. Persistence. Relentless. We are playing with all little guys, everyone fouled out, and we kept battling and found a way to win.
Kansas State: A remarkable victory, indeed, considering K-State shot just 35 percent from the field, attempted 15 fewer free throws than Kentucky and was outrebounded 38-29. Brown, with 13 points, and Green were the only players in double figures, but defense carried the day again for Weber’s team. “We just kept grinding,” the coach said. “We said, `Keep grinding, keep fighting.’ We’ve got a chance to go to the Final Four now.”
Kentucky: Couldn’t overcome a tough shooting night. Calipari’s team had that huge advantage at the foul line but made only 23 of 37 attempts to go along with a 16-of-42 performance from the field. Fifteen turnovers also hurt.
Kansas State: Will face the NCAA’s sentimental favorite for a trip to the Final Four. Loyola has become a national darling with its improbable run in the tournament, cheered on by 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean. The Ramblers certainly know how to win the closes ones; its three tournament victories are by a total of four points. K-State will be going for its first Final Four appearance since 1964.
Kentucky: With many of its players expected to move on to the NBA, Calipari will start the one-and-done process all over again.