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March 26, 2010

Clemente helps Cats fight past Xavier

SALT LAKE CITY -- Denis Clemente had no idea. He had no idea Kansas State fans were trumpeting his name as one of the heroes in one of the most exciting and most significant victories in school history. He had no idea his 25 points will go down in the books as one of the guttiest efforts ever by a senior to wear purple and white. Clemente also had no idea if the 101-96 double-overtime thriller over Xavier was the best moment of his basketball career.

"I don't know. I don't know," Clemente said moments after the marathon, seemingly speechless and rattled over the enormity of it all.

"Top five?" Jacob Pullen asked, sitting beside Clemente in the NCAA West Region semifinal postgame news conference.

"Maybe, I don't know," Clemente repeated.

All the 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard knew was this: After playing a career-high 48 minutes with only one turnover, after scoring 19 points, including a rare and key four-point play with less than five minutes remaining in a wild second half that ended tied at 72-72, and after dishing out four of his team-high five assists in the two overtime periods, he wasn't ready to hang it up for good.

Clemente got his wish. And so did No. 2 seed K-State, which in front of a crowd of 17,254 at EnergySolutions Arena captured the nation's attention once again by outlasting the sixth-seeded and 25th-ranked Musketeers. Seventh-ranked K-State improved its school-record mark to 29-7, and will face fifth-seeded and 11th-ranked Butler, 31-4, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on the same court in hopes of lifting the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 46 years.

"I mean, so help me, man, I can't even explain," Clemente said. "I can understand this is my last tournament. I'm a senior, so I got to lay everything on the court like I've been doing, keep supporting my teammates and coach."

That's all that Clemente, who knows only one speed -- fast -- knows during this dizzying March that seemingly continues to gain speed even though the Wildcats and Musketeers battled in an instant-classic tussle that featured 13 ties, 17 lead changes, and became the first double-overtime game in a regional semifinal since Minnesota beat Clemson 90-87 in 1997.

However, Clemente didn't think the contest needed to go that long. With K-State leading 72-69 and less than 10 seconds to go in regulation, Clemente wrapped up Xavier's Jordan Crawford near midcourt, but officials didn't call him for a foul.

With five seconds on the clock, senior Chris Merriewether fouled the dangerous Crawford, who was in the act of shooting a 3-pointer. Crawford sank all three free throws and Pullen's 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off to end regulation.

Pullen led with 28 points, including six 3-pointers, and center Curtis Kelly added 21 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, who leaned heavily on their lightening-quick point guard during the second half.

"Denis did a great job," Kelly said. "I always look for Denis and Jake to do a great job. You know, that's their job for us on this team. Denis controlled the ball well. I owe my scoring to him and Jake. That just shows how much they believe in me, how much they knew I wanted to win this game, too."

It wasn't until Clemente twice found Pullen for 3-pointers in the final 71 seconds of the second overtime -- one gave K-State a 94-93 lead, another made it 97-94 with 32 seconds to go -- that the Wildcats took the decisive lead to cap the most scintillating game of this March Madness, ending another chapter in this magical tale for Clemente and his teammates.

"I told him since before we played our first game in this tournament that nothing will make me happier than to have to continue to run practice," said K-State coach Frank Martin, whose 72 wins are tied for the most by a Big 12 head coach in his first three seasons. "I enjoy being around him in practice so much.

"But Denis is phenomenal. Denis has a will like no other. He has tremendous courage. There were moments in that game when things weren't going right for us, he buckled in and made plays offensively for himself and others to allow us to kind of relax and be able to continue to go forward."

After the final buzzer sounded, Clemente raised his arms in victory, pointing his index fingers to the sky and toward a celebrating purple section behind the team's bench. Then Clemente and Pullen stood together and recalled their triumph to the nation in front of CBS cameras near press row.

Clemente gave a shoutout to his family and friends watching from back in Puerto Rico. Then Clemente, the most notable K-State transfer since a junior college transfer named Mitch Richmond, walked toward the locker room to one final round of departing cheers.

Meanwhile, Clemente had no idea that somewhere back in his college hometown in Manhattan, somewhere along the packed streets in Aggieville that classmates and fans were likely singing his name. He also had no idea that he's the first transfer to help the Wildcats to an Elite Eight since Richmond did so 22 years ago.

All Clemente knew was this: On Friday afternoon, he and his teammates would practice again.



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