NCAA Tournament game day: Kansas State 75, Kentucky 69
Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and Kentucky.com’s coverage of Sunday’s men’s basketball game between Kentucky and Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament at Greensboro, N.C.
The doors to Kentucky’s locker room opened up Sunday evening, and in came a flood of reporters and the bright lights of TV cameras.
In one corner of the room — his back to the crowd, staring down at his hands and wearing nothing but a pair of blue UK basketball shorts — sat Oscar Tshiebwe.
Kentucky’s star player and the driving force behind the Wildcats for the past two seasons sat quietly. Often the most gregarious of all the Cats, he didn’t say a word. He sat almost completely still for several minutes, alone with his thoughts and contemplating what might have been the final college basketball game he ever plays.
Kansas State had just defeated Kentucky 75-69 to eliminate the Cats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. For the second straight season, Tshiebwe’s ultimate dream — a ninth national championship for UK — was finished before the first weekend of March Madness had ended.
That gaggle waiting to hear what Tshiebwe had to say about it all continued to wait. And wait. And then freshman center Ugonna Onyenso, who had been watching the whole scene closely, stood up from his locker and made his way toward Tshiebwe, who has been a mentor of sorts to the younger center all season. Onyenso leaned down and whispered something into Tshiebwe’s ear. Another moment passed, and the Kentucky star stood up, turned his chair around, sat back down and prepared to face the reality that his season — and probably his college career — was over.
“I don’t know what to say,” Tshiebwe started.
The 23-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to Kentucky as a transfer from West Virginia in the middle of the 2020-21 season. Last season, Tshiebwe was a revelation on the basketball court, ending it as the national player of the year.
But Kentucky’s season was halted by that unthinkable first-round loss to 15-seeded Saint Peter’s, a result that left the Wildcats — and Tshiebwe, particularly — stunned.
Instead of moving on to the NBA Draft — where he would have been a second-round pick, at worst — Tshiebwe opted to return to Lexington and play another year for the Wildcats.
His goal, he said then, had nothing to do with repeating as national player of the year or any other personal accolade. All he wanted to do, Tshiebwe made clear, was win a national title.
His numbers took a dip in year two, his defense was maligned, his draft stock fell, and it was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be the epic Kentucky season that Tshiebwe had envisioned. He endured a preseason knee surgery, and the Cats often struggled.
But, with the spotlight as bright as it had ever been, Tshiebwe was still one of the best college basketball players in the country. And he came to Greensboro this week with that national championship dream — no matter how long the odds — still intact.
On Friday night, he grabbed 25 rebounds in a win over Providence — ending one shy of the modern NCAA Tournament record and helping to deliver UK’s first March Madness victory in four years. On Sunday afternoon, another monumental performance: 25 points and 18 rebounds. But, this time, his Wildcats came up just a little short.
If this was indeed the final time Tshiebwe puts on a Kentucky uniform, it obviously didn’t end the way he had hoped.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said of the emotions of the moment. “I don’t know. I’m all right.”
But the look of agony on his face didn’t match those final words.
Tshiebwe said he thought Kentucky was going to win the game and move on to the East Regional at Madison Square Garden in New York City. There didn’t seem to be any doubt in his mind. He said that when he walked off the court after Sunday’s loss, he still couldn’t believe the final score. He was so locked into his thoughts in the postgame locker room that he said he didn’t even know people were waiting to talk to him.
Once Tshiebwe started to speak, he began to open up more and more. But that smile that became so familiar to anyone who followed Kentucky basketball over the past two years never came close to touching his face.
He thanked Kentucky’s fans for their support. He thanked his teammates and his coaches. He lamented the way the past two seasons had ended.
“Things did not turn out to be what we wanted to be,” Tshiebwe said. “But we give thanks to God. We want them to stay strong. This program is built for greatness. But sometimes God allows some things to happen so people can learn from that.
“And they can turn into something great.”
As Tshiebwe continued to speak, Onyenso — an 18-year-old from Nigeria who found a big brother figure in the UK star when he first arrived in Lexington — revealed what he had said before Tshiebwe turned around to face the questions.
“I told him it wasn’t the end of the world,” Onyenso said. “It happened. It was unfortunate that he didn’t fulfill his dream of helping this school get a national title.”
Onyenso told Tshiebwe it was time to turn around and talk, that everyone wanted to hear what he had to say.
“Keep moving,” the young player told him. “Whatever happened, happened.”
And then Onyenso talked about what he had learned from a season of practicing against Tshiebwe, sharing a locker room with him, and observing the veteran player on and off the court.
“He has a good fighting spirit. He doesn’t back down from anything,” Onyenso said. “That’s the one thing he told me when I first got here — being able to get that fighting spirit. Win or lose, just keeping that mentality. … He’s a very nice person. And being around someone like him throughout the season, it helped me in a very big way.”
John Calipari said immediately after Sunday’s loss that he hadn’t spoken with all of the Wildcats about their futures, but his expectation is that all of his seniors — despite having another year of eligibility — had just played their final game at Kentucky. Tshiebwe said in the postgame locker room that he didn’t know what he would do.
If Tshiebwe truly measured greatness by a national championship, the odds were never in his favor. But coming up short in March over the past two seasons won’t be his legacy.
If Sunday was the end, Tshiebwe will still have a place in the program’s history books and in the memories of all who watched him play.
One of his final messages to UK fans was an unsurprising one to anyone who’s listened to his words over the past two years. Despite those 25 points and 18 rebounds, he apologized that he didn’t do more.
“I’m probably going to say sorry to the BBN nation,” he said. “Because I came here, and my dream was to do something great. Two years in a row, it did not happen.
“But I’m very happy to be part of Kentucky.”
This story was originally published March 19, 2023, 7:39 PM.