KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State players spread out across their massive Sprint Center locker room Thursday in a state of disbelief.
Their late-season surge and status as one of the hottest teams in college basketball had come to an end. But they didn't want to admit it.
After winning six straight games to climb back into the national polls — decisively beating Kansas and Texas along the way — they stumbled in a familiar way their Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal game.
Colorado, the last team to defeat the Wildcats in early February, took them down again 87-75 and helped its NCAA Tournament resume.
"They beat us three times," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "So they're just better than we are. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. It's been proven on the floor."
Indeed, no matter how much fourth-seeded K-State has changed during this wacky season, fifth-seeded Colorado has remained the same. Only this time, the defeat truly stung — to the point of anger.
"It's aggravating because I don't think they're better than us," said senior forward Curtis Kelly, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "I don't think they're better than us in any shape or form. I think we're a better team than them. I think we have a better core of guys than them.
"They have a lot of role players and two outstanding NBA prospects.. . . In my mind, I know we're better than them, but unfortunately the stats and the record don't show that."
Not in any shape or form.
First came a 74-66 home loss that drove Martin to change his team's offensive scheme. Then there was a 58-56 road setback that came down to a replay review of the game's final play. Thursday's matchup was supposed to be different, with K-State players openly requesting to play Colorado for a shot at revenge.
It looked early like the Wildcats were going to get it. Behind strong shooting performances from Kelly and senior guard Jacob Pullen, who scored 18 points and had seven assists, they took a 23-16 lead less than nine minutes in.
But then CU sophomore guard Alec Burks, who put together his second straight big game with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists, and senior Cory Higgins, who led all scorers with 28 points, got to work. Colorado (21-12) took a 35-31 lead with less than three minutes remaining before halftime.
K-State (22-10) led 39-37 at the break, but by that point things were spinning out of control. The Wildcats' defense was no match for Burks and Higgins on the perimeter.
"Our guys were dialed in," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.
Once they proved they could beat K-State off the dribble and get to the basket, they began driving at will.
"That's the problem with playing Colorado," Martin said. "They're a hard matchup for us, because their two wings are real good off the dribble and our weakness the whole year has been our ability to guard the dribble."
Still, Pullen, a two-time All-Big 12 defender, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling have been effective in that area lately. On this day, though, they simply couldn't slow Colorado down.
"That's what we knew they were going to do," said freshman guard Will Spradling, who scored 14 points. " We just had to guard the ball. We didn't do it. Normally we get blocked shots at the rim. We didn't get many blocks today, either."
Making matters worse, Colorado gave itself second chances by snaring 35 rebounds and took advantage of open shots with kick-outs that turned into 6-of-9 three-point shooting. Overall, the Buffaloes shot 58 percent.
As K-State's defense began to break, its offense did, too. When the second half began, the Wildcats got the ball in good spots and took open shots. But they missed.
Their energy level began to fade, and players said they felt "lackadaisical."
"Nobody was ready to play tonight," Jamar Samuels said. "You could see it at the beginning of the game. Second half, missing chip-ins and in-and-out shots. It's tough, man."
Perhaps the toughest aspect of all is that K-State still managed to take a 57-54 lead midway through the second half, and pull within 73-72 on a Spradling layup with 1:32 to go. It had a decent crowd on its side, and was in position to steal the game.
But every time K-State had the opportunity to take control, it failed. By the end, Colorado pulled away for a comfortable victory. K-State headed home to await Sunday’s NCAA selections.
"We weren't on cue today," Pullen said. "That's the part that is really appalling. You don't understand that we can do that, especially after the way we lost to them twice this season."