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January 31, 2008

Barrett, Cats celebrate huge victory

As the final three minutes rolled off the clock, Ernie Barrett, "Mr. K-State," hardened by the atrocity of the infamous streak, stood high in section five at Bramlage Coliseum, wearing a collared shirt that matched Kansas State's famed old-school lavender jerseys, and attempted to put it all into words. Little by little, the Wildcats' icon with broad shoulders and an iron handshake slowly melted into butter until his eyes, the ones that thought they had seen it all, finally became watery.

"We did it tonight, buddy," he said.

A friend turned around. "Still two minutes left."

"Oh, bull," he countered. "We're going to win it."

Then the 77-year-old former All-American who led K-State to the 1951 Final Four and spent nearly 60 years at the school as a player, assistant coach and administrator until his retirement last June, launched a granite fist into the air as the deafening sellout crowd of 12,528 reached peak levels and time continued to dwindle on the historic night Manhattan would never forget.

Twenty-five years and one day had passed since K-State last tasted victory against Kansas in Manhattan and the Wildcats had never beaten the Jayhawks in Bramlage. But it had been much longer since the in-state rivals clashed when both were nationally ranked (March 8, 1958) and K-State had only beaten Kansas one other time in Manhattan when the Jayhawks were ranked second in the nation. That was Jan. 26, 1952 - one season after the Barrett-led Wildcats fell to top-ranked Kentucky in the NCAA Championship Game. It also had been nearly 87 years to the day since a first-year K-State head coach toppled Kansas in his series debut.

So many milestones. So much to absorb.

The final minutes seemed like years and seconds seemed like hours. Together, the Wildcat Nation silently counted down the ticks until No. 22 K-State dethroned unbeaten No. 2 Kansas, 84-75, handing the Jayhawks their first defeat in 21 games this season and making the Wildcats the national story. Off to its best conference start in 20 years, K-State at 5-0 sits atop the Big 12 Conference. After going winless against their previous eight Top 10 opponents over the last three seasons, the Wildcats beat two in 11 days.

Still, as time crept, Barrett's memories continued to flow as Nichols Gymnasium blurred into Ahearn Field House and the Old Barn blurred into the spectacle on display. The air of familiarity sent chills up his spine. He could feel it.

The magic was here. Again.

"You know, the thing that I really admire is the students' reaction to the game tonight," Barrett said. "Everybody told me a long time ago (Bramlage opened for the 1989-90 season) that the noise here wasn't like Ahearn. I said, 'Listen, you fill this damn thing and it will be.' Sorry, but I've got to express my enthusiasm. It's a credit to K-Staters to believe in this.

"That streak thing shouldn't have ever happened to begin with."

Sitting near the scorekeeper on press row, goat-teed K-State athletics director Tim Weiser finally leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms behind his back.

"Forty-seven seconds left," he sighed.

Behind Weiser, a few rows back, Bill Snyder and his son, Sean, stood quietly. Snyder once punished the instate rival 11 times in a row on the gridiron. But in 17 years as legendary football coach and in 19 years of residency, K-State never beat Kansas on the basketball court in Manhattan. For much of the contest, Snyder sat on the edge of his seat, almost in the aisle. He rubbed his chin. He looked at the scoreboard. He seemed to edge even closer during timeouts, as if trying to eves drop on Martin in the huddle from about 15 feet away.

"They've gotten better and better all year," a smiling Snyder said. "Frank Martin and his staff have done an amazing job getting this team better all along. In my eyes, they weren't an underdog. They're a team that has been improving so much that this isn't an upset."

When the final buzzer sounded, sending Bramlage rocking like never before, Weiser jumped from his seat and swung around, where he met President Jon Wefald, Vice President Bob Krause and their wives. They embraced in a six-member group hug while a purple sea of students spilled onto the court.

"It was a battle all the way and we were the better team tonight," Krause said. "We beat a great team."

Wefald high-fived freshman point guard Jacob Pullen, who jumped onto the press table, then turned and headed down a long stretch of concrete and toward the tunnel and away from the jovial purple-clad sea of fans. At the lip of the tunnel, though, Wefald gazed at the scoreboard one final time.

"A big win, isn't it?" said Wefald, who in his previous 21 years at K-State never saw the Jayhawks stomp off the court as losers in Manhattan. "Oh, man, this is fun."

Wefald grabbed Michael Beasley, the sensational freshman who backed his guarantee of certain victory and is the certain favorite for national player of the year honors. They hugged and Beasley, who had a game-high 25 points and six rebounds in 38 minutes, disappeared into the locker room with his arms raised high above his head.

While thousands occupied the court, thousands, too, stood from their seats and continued to celebrate. Men with watery eyes held young children as if telling them, "Remember this moment."

Meanwhile, Eddie Elder, a sophomore forward on the 1982-83 squad that was the last to beat Kansas in Manhattan, stood in the third row and silently watched the jubilation.

"I'm like a sponge just absorbing this," he said. "I don't want to leave. From start to finish, we competed. With respect to KU, I thought we were the better team tonight. We played with a lot of energy."

That, Barrett contended, had been precisely the culprit over the years.

"You know, a streak is a streak," Barrett said. "I've been around long enough to recognize that we had chances to win and just hadn't done it. We hadn't finished the game. Tonight, we started strong and were ahead practically the whole time. When you've got a duo like Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, that can make things happen."

He paused.

"I'm so happy for coach Frank Martin," he said. "I remember when I was an assistant coach, I wanted to be a head coach, but people said, 'Well, you don't have any head coaching experience.' He was in the right place at the right time and I thought he was a great choice to begin with. I felt he was every bit as good as any we could've gone out and looked for.

"Winning this game tonight will end a lot of questions, if any. I'm not sure there were any questions, to be honest with you."

On this night, there were no questions. Only memories.

Josh Parker, a 21-year-old K-State senior, will certainly have a story to tell years from now. Determined to be the first in what by mid-afternoon grew into a monstrous line of students camped outside of Bramlage, Parker and about 15 friends arrived near the arena Tuesday at 10 p.m. - about seven hours before students were allowed to start forming the line in the west side parking lot. They tried to find things to hide behind. Parker was crouched behind a trashcan when police officers ordered them to leave the grounds. So, the pack of students walked back to their vehicles at the adjacent K-State recreation center and waited it out despite temperatures hovering in the teens.

"We were just hanging outside by our cars talking," Parker said. "Then at around 4 a.m., everybody started showing up."

Turns out one of Parker's friends, Zach Winter, had a head start. Winter, who wears a referee's polo shirt to every home game, couldn't stand the possibility of not manning in his usual spot in the front row. Somehow, he managed to slip by unnoticed and hid in some bushes near the arena's west entrance.

"Zach hid in those bushes for about three and a half hours," Parker chuckled. "Nobody saw him. When the gates opened, he popped out of the bushes and got first in line. It was nice."

Winter witnessed how Beasley made his cousin's day not too long ago. The story of Beasley befriending 11-year-old Blade Winter during a Jan. 19 women's basketball game -- Beasley didn't know Blade has leukemia -- continues to make the rounds, as has Beasley's growing legend packed with on-court exploits. Well, Zach wanted to help make Wednesday a night Beasley and the Wildcats wouldn't forget. As did more than 12,000 others.

Mission accomplished.

"I don't think that you can have that (atmosphere) in any other city or school in America," Beasley said afterward. "That's just dedication. That's just love. That just shows the world that our fans are the best in the country."

On one magical night, a first-year head coach and his vastly maturing young squad took another step, erased an unfathomable streak, ran the crimson and blue out of the arena, and for one night at least, became the top college basketball story in America.

They also sent longtime loyalists like Mr. K-State heading out into the cold nighttime air, head held high and burning with the same competitive fire that stewed inside once before.

"This may now be a rivalry," Barrett said. "And I hope it is."

To many, that's what the night was all about.


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