February 28, 2009

K-State wins physical battle with Nebraska

Kansas State likely had to beat Nebraska Saturday night to keep its hopes of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament alive. The Huskers helped provide plenty of uneasy moments for a sellout crowd at Bramlage Coliseum, but the Wildcats were able to outlast their visitors from Lincoln, 77-72, to improve to 20-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big 12 Conference.

Nebraska (16-11, 6-8) had handed the Wildcats a 73-51 loss earlier this season, but revenge wasn't the only motivating factor driving K-State in the rematch against the Huskers.

"Them beating us like they did at their place, and our life, as far as postseason play, we have to continue to fight," K-State guard Jacob Pullen said afterwards. "We have to put (the NCAA Tournament selection committee) where they don't just look at us as automatically out, where they have to look at us as long as we're near the top of the Big 12."

The win allowed K-State to move into a three-way tie with Oklahoma State and Texas for fourth place in the league, but it didn't come easily.

After Nebraska scored the game's first basket on a back door layup by Steve Harley K-State responded with an 11-2 run that allowed the Wildcats to grab early control of the contest at 11-4 just five minutes into action. Nebraska had an answer of its own, however, as the Huskers scored seven unanswered points to draw even with K-State.

Nebraska's held its biggest first-half lead, 22-18, with 8:35 remaining before the break. K-State would also build a four-point lead before the half ended, but the Wildcats saw that 30-26 advantage evaporate in the last two minutes of the first half. Nebraska scored the last six points before both teams headed to the locker room, including a 3-pointer from Ryan Anderson with just seconds remaining to give the Huskers a 32-30 lead at the break.

K-State shot just 27.7 percent from the field in the first half compared to Nebraska's 48 percent, but the Wildcats were able to stay well within striking distance thanks in large part to a 16-7 edge in free throw attempts over the first 20 minutes. K-State also forced Nebraska leading scorer Ade Dagunduro to the bench with three fouls with nearly five minutes remaining in the opening half.

"You guys need to cheer here in the second half, 'cause we need this game," was the message former K-State All-American Mitch Richmond, who had his jersey retired along with fellow Wildcat great Willie Murrell at halftime, offered the capacity crowd at Bramlage Coliseum. One could only assume that K-State coach Frank Martin shared a similar urgency with his team at halftime.

Dagunduro picked up his fourth foul with 15:05 left in the contest, sending the 6-foot-5 senior back to the bench with 12 points and five rebounds and the Huskers clinging to a two-point lead at 40-38. Dagunduro's fourth foul came in the midst of a 15-6 Wildcat run, which turned what had been a six-point Nebraska lead into a three-point K-State advantage at 49-46 with 12:18 remaining.

Wildcat junior guard Buchi Awaji scored the final five points of that run and seven straight for K-State while playing a big role coming off the bench, as the 6-foot-3 junior finished with 10 points.

Nebraska would respond with back-to-back baskets to temporarily slow the Wildcats' momentum, but K-State would then embark on a 9-0 run to grab 58-50 lead with eight minutes to play. In what seemed to be a game of runs, the Huskers immediately answered with an 8-2 spurt of its own over the next two minutes to slice K-State's lead to just a basket at 60-58.

K-State finally gained a sliver of breathing room with 3:52 to play on a Pullen 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats a 67-60 lead. Four straight Husker free throws from Cookie Miller cut the margin to just three before a Denis Clemente basked extended K-State's lead to five points at 69-64. An Anderson 3-pointer drew Nebraska to within a basket before Kent answered with a baseline jumper to make the score 71-67 in favor of the Wildcats.

Perhaps the game's biggest play came on the ensuing possession, as Dagunduro fouled out with 1:05 remaining on a charging call that elicited plenty of anger from Nebraska coach Doc Sadler and the Huskers' bench. K-State wasn't able to score on the ensuing possession but received a huge basket-saving block from Awaji on the other end to help finally slam the door on Nebraska in a game the Wildcats simply had to have.

"This is a special, special group of kids. Coming off that (loss) at Missouri, which was obviously a game we wanted to win, not playing well and getting shellacked the way we did � the (Nebraska) comes out in the second half and builds that lead up, this is a special group of kids," Martin said. "I know this: they just refuse, refuse to lose."

Awaji was joined in double figures by Pullen (18 points, 9 of 9 from the free throw line), Clemente (14 points, 8 of 10 from the line) and Kent, who finished with 13 points. Anderson led Nebraska with 19, Dagunduro finished with 16 points in 20 minutes and Miller added 14.

K-State will return to action Tuesday at Oklahoma State against a Cowboy team that knocked off Texas on Saturday to help improve its own NCAA Tournament resume. Tipoff for that contest is schedule for 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

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