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‘Is this really happening?’ Why yes, it is

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ATLANTA — This was supposed to be Kentucky’s region. With No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 4 Arizona all knocked out during the first weekend of play, it felt like the carpet was laid out for Big Blue to make it to the Final Four.

The notion that No. 5 Kentucky had the easiest path to San Antonio was inescapable. Someone even labeled Atlanta the “Kentucky Invitational” — a fact that Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said he thought about while he fumed during his team’s late arrival Wednesday due to a police escort that never showed and a bus driver who got lost navigating the city.

No. 11 Loyola’s 15 minutes were supposed to be up. So who cared if they didn’t make it to the arena on time? Center Cameron Krutwig said he heard all about Kentucky’s supposed “cake walk” and refused to “fall into that trap.”

No. 9 Kansas State felt the disrespect, too. As Junior guard Kamau Stokes explained, “We heard it a lot. Not just from [Kentucky] fans, but players, too.”

“That motivated us,” Stokes said. “They thought they were going to have it easy, and they didn’t.”

No, they did not.

In fact, none of the higher seeds had it easy in Atlanta as Cinderella traded in its glass slipper for a steel-toe boot on Thursday, kicking No. 5 Kentucky and No. 7 Nevada to the curb in pressure-packed games that came down to the final possessions.

The favorites folded, the underdogs played with poise and now we have an Elite Eight matchup that no one predicted. No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola might feel strange to say out loud, but no one is going to say they didn’t deserve to advance.

With the clock winding down below 30 seconds and the game tied at 58-58, Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. dribbled and dribbled and dribbled, and looked as if he was going nowhere. That is, until the junior from St. Petersburg, Florida, decided to take the game into his hands.

When Brown put his head down, it was over. He got his defender on his heels, drove into the paint and parted a sea of Kentucky big men to lay in the game-winning basket with 19 seconds left.

During the postgame celebration, Brown went into the stands on one side of the court. Stokes faced the crowd on the other and put his index finger to his lips. Hush, haters.

Even with All-Big 12 big man Dean Wade able to play only eight minutes, Kansas State advanced to the Elite Eight.

“I’m hurt,” Wade said, “but our team is still there. Players are stepping up everywhere. They’re not missing a beat.”

He added later: “We’ve been doubted — literally the whole season, doubted. We just play with a chip on our shoulder every game.”

But now the question becomes how that chip holds up against Loyola?

There can’t be two teams of destiny in the same tournament, right?

Loyola surely isn’t ready for its fairy tale to end. Krutwig said he told friends after beating Nevada, “Is this real? Is this really happening?”

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Barry Brown breaks a tie with a layup down the stretch as Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can’t convert a game-tying 3-pointer and Kansas State advances to the Elite Eight with a 61-58 victory.

It was real, and it is happening.

Krudwig’s so-called “small school from Chicago” is making some noise.

“We’re not just here for show,” Krudwig said. “We’re here to win some games.”

Said freshman Lucas Williamson: “We knew, definitely — we knew we had it in us.”

All anyone needed to do to understand Loyola’s belief was to take one look around its locker room. To a team of veterans, including two seniors and two fourth-year juniors in the starting lineup. To a coach who had steadily built a program during his seven seasons in Chicago. To a coaching staff that voraciously scouted opponents.

On dozens of posters taped on every wall of Loyola’s locker room were diagrams of all of Nevada’s plays. There was the “Weave down” and “Dribble Panther” and so many others all spelled out. Krutwig said it’s like that every game: “It’s just something that breeds confidence for us — preparation breeds confidence.”

And it’s that confidence that has created a new normal for Loyola. After three wins over higher seeds — first against No. 6 Miami, then No. 3 Tennessee and finally No. 7 Nevada — the Ramblers are looking more comfortable with the big stage. Its chaplain, Sister Jean, has become a bona fide celebrity.

“It’s all coming together,” Williamson said, “and it’s really special.”

Maybe its special season will continue with a trip to the Final Four.

Or maybe Kansas State will continue its special season instead.

Either way, two teams no one expected will battle for the right to move on to San Antonio on Saturday while Kentucky will be home with all the other supposed favorites wondering what happened.

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