ATLANTA — Geography was supposed to put a stop to the South Region’s foolishness. The NCAA tournament quadrant that’d seen UMBC become the first-ever No. 16 seed to win, a blowout loss by preseason No. 1 Arizona, Nevada pull two different double-digit comebacks, and mighty Loyola-Chicago knocking off two top-six seeds finally had an adult in the room: Kentucky.
And not just Kentucky, but Kentucky in Atlanta.
UK’s won so many big games here, they’ve called it “Cat-lanta” since at least the 1990s.
The Wildcats won the first SEC tournament here, won half the Georgia Dome’s SEC title games, and won here in the NCAAs along the way to their last two national championships.
Big Blue Nation swarmed Philips Arena even for the early game, ready to power the more talented roster and loaded program to its record 38th Elite Eight and then 18th Final Four. All four head coaches were asked before Thursday night about UK’s supposedly cleared path. After the South Region had collapsed into madness, the five-star Wildcats winning the group would’ve felt like a suggestion of structure at the very end, like shoving an armoire in front of a human-sized hole in a wall.
And the Wildcats won. The three-star Wildcats, that is.
Kansas State won a disgusting thriller — because every game in the South Region is some combination of hideous, thrilling, or loss by the favorite — that’d devolved into 22 combined missed free throws, combined 36 percent FG shooting, and K-State being down to only five rotation players. K-State had never beaten the bigger, badder Wildcats in basketball before, so of course it happened on UK’s second home floor.
K-STATE SURVIVES!!!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
The Wildcats hold off Kentucky and move on to the #Elite8#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/UQXBB8eBVe
The metaphors were almost too literal.
How ain’t-even-supposed-to-be-here is this: when Loyola-Chicago arrived in town, its bus driver was unable to find Philips Arena for the better part of an hour due to a lack of police escort, said head coach Porter Moser. Kentucky could navigate downtown in its sleep.
But Loyola also won.
In the equally wild early game, so many overnight March memes collided — Sister Jean’s chill aura vs. zombie Nevada: something’s gotta give — and it ended with Marques Townes drilling the shot of his life, then apologizing in the postgame presser to Sister Jean for ruining her bracket, because not even Loyola’s beloved team matriarch dared to dream of the South Region going this far off script.
“I don’t care that you broke my bracket."— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
-Sister Jean on @RamblersMBB moving on to the #Elite8 #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/MJoMz66wAL
The South is guaranteed to produce one of the lowest-seeded Final Four teams ever, either No. 9 Kansas State or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
That’s comfortably the strangest Elite Eight game in the 64-team era, but that’s the fitting end for a region that ate the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, multiple other national title picks, and then its new overwhelming favorite.
Now the South will send the Final Four either a team most of America had never heard of before March ... or a K-State that somehow entered the tourney with even longer national title odds than the Ramblers’.
“They keep believing. They keep buying in,” Moser said when asked about the fact his program is in the Elite Eight despite having only a plus-4 scoring margin in the tournament. “So it’s just grown, and we haven’t thought about the total victory margin. We’ve just talked about putting it in the bank, next one, we’re hungry, we’re greedy, we want more.”
After the buzzer, scattered Loyola fans in red-and-yellow scarves floated through the Kentucky hive mind, which was grumbling about shot selection and free throws as it re-traced familiar steps in the cold, back through its adopted March home. With the one section of K-State fans still celebrating in the building, following BBN out felt exactly like leaving a home loss by an Atlanta team.
And actually, I think that brings us to what really wrecked the favorite in this postseason game:
For you UK-Atlanta Braves fans, the Braves have made a special hat for having the Cats in town pic.twitter.com/8UwDa2Jshu— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) March 21, 2018