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March 26, 2010

Pullen shoots Cats into Elite Eight

SALT LAKE CITY -- Jacob Pullen had long since claimed ownership of the Kansas State basketball team, but at least for a night, his rule stretched beyond the hardwood, as on Thursday, all the buildings on the school's campus, the color purple and every last one of Manhattan's drinking establishments joined his empire. The Elite Eight-clinching, 101-96, double-overtime victory over Xavier featured 13 ties and 17 lead changes, but when K-State finally climbed on top for good with less than a minute to play in the final overtime, it did so with a boost from its brightest-shining star.

Battling foul trouble for much of the evening, his 28 points were impressive, but it's what the Chicago-native did when it mattered most that snatched both the spotlight and K-State's most meaningful victory in recent history. Then again, as suspenseful and exciting at the marathon was, there was little that could be categorized as surprising.

Great games yield great teams, and great teams yield great players. The chain reaction was in effect inside Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena, and Pullen stood at the end line, just one win removed from a trip to the Final Four.

"It was a classic," a visibly exhausted Pullen said following the win. "It was just two teams that didn't want the season to end. We didn't play our best game, but that's a credit to them."

Sure his individual mistakes were present, but in a business where winning cures all, Pullen reached into his hand and played the trump card.

The long-awaited tipping point was a scene that will be replayed thousands of times. With nearly an hour of clock elapsed and two of his teammates fouled out, Pullen caught a pass on from Denis Clemente at the top of the arc and, and in a tie game, fired away.

For the second-leading 3-point shooter in K-State history the result was familiar.

"You can play good defense, but I shoot that shot all the time," Pullen said following the contest. "I'm used to it, so I was prepared to make it."

Take his words with a grain of salt. Late-game buckets? Sure, he's been there. But the game-defining shot in the second overtime of a late-round NCAA Tournament contest? Never … well, until now.

You could almost see his legacy expand as the ball fell through the net. It was simply that kind of shot in that kind of moment.

"He's got ice in his veins," said K-State forward Jamar Samuels, who scored six of his 14 points in extra 10 minutes.

The statement wasn't based on the game-winner alone. Down the stretch, Pullen took over, engaging of a metaphorical manhood-measuring contest with Xavier's Jordan Crawford, who finished with a game-high 32 points. It continued through both overtime periods as the two answered each other seemingly on cue, boasting the swiftness of a 911 operator.

"That's why you have upperclassmen guards." K-State head coach Frank Martin said. "It helps you get through these kinds of games."

So while the Pullen-led Wildcats ultimately emerged, the outcome was always in doubt, but never more so than when Crawford nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game with 00:06 remaining in the first extra frame.

"They made some big shots and we made some big shots," Crawford said. "They just made a little more. They came out on top."

The ESPN Classic-worthy game, along with Pullen's time in the national sun, was almost just another 40-minute basketball bout, as it appeared as though the Wildcats would stroll out of the building with regulation win. The apparent 72-69 victory didn't come to be, however, as a crunch-time strategy gone wrong extended the contest.

Up by three points with five seconds to play, Martin made the call to put the Musketeers on the free throw line, taking away the option of a 3-point shot. So as Chris Merriewether got a piece of Xavier's Terrell Holloway, an 85 percent free-throw shooter, in the act of shooting from just in front of mid court. As the sophomore guard drained all three shots, Martin's worst nightmare, one he shares with most coaches, had come to life.

"Coach told us that as soon as he crossed half court, we were going to foul him," Merriewether said. "Denis was fouling him. The ref must not have seen the foul. Crawford went up, I went out on him and fouled. As soon as I fouled, he leaned into me and shot the jump shot."

It wasn't the first time Thursday's thriller seemed to be in hand, as the Wildcats used an early 15-0 run fueled by transition buckets from Pullen and Clemente to jump out to a 15-point first-half advantage. It wasn't long until the foul trouble began to set it in, however, and it did so at an express train's pace.

By the time Pullen headed to the bench with his third with 16:22 to play in the half, the lead had already started to shrivel, but with its star off the court for a significant stretch, things for Martin's team would only get worse. K-State scored just three points in the frame's final seven minutes and watched as the tidal wave of momentum it had built transformed into a tranquil pond.

Pullen's early foul trouble, as well as what ensued, only made the guard's game-saving effort more compelling, as the points came in situations as clutch as they were crafty.

"I missed a few shots, but (Martin) never lost faith in me," Pullen said. "Denis and Frank kept running plays to get me shots. It was of those things where, mentally, you know you're tired, but you have to keep squaring up and shooting."

Clemente's 25 points were second on the team to only Pullen, while Curtis Kelly became the Wildcats' third 20-point scorer, racking up 10 of his 21 points in the two extra periods.

K-State, now 29-7 on the season, will play Butler, the region's No. 5 seed, for a spot in this year's Final Four on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.



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