Wildcats deliver the final punch
SALT LAKE CITY – Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen couldn’t resist sneaking a peek.
The star performer in Kansas State’s 101-96 double-overtime victory over Xavier in the West Regional semifinals was heading back to a jubilant EnergySolutions Arena locker room Thursday after finishing his postgame media session.
But when he saw a television in his path, Pullen couldn’t help himself. He joined teammates Denis Clemente and Curtis Kelly in briefly watching highlights of the marathon they had just finished playing.
Who could blame him?
Pullen was the most outstanding player in the most outstanding game of this year’s NCAA tournament. He had to catch a glimpse of what the nation had just had the pleasure of witnessing.
“It’s a classic,” said Pullen, whose 28-point effort advanced the second-seeded Wildcats to Saturday’s regional championship game with fifth-seeded Butler. “It was two teams who didn’t want their season to end.”
And for a while, it seemed as if this game would never end.
The first double-overtime regional semifinal since 1997 featured 13 ties and 17 lead changes. Xavier made stunning comebacks at the end of regulation and the first overtime session before Pullen finally put Kansas State ahead for good by sinking a 3-pointer – his sixth of the night – with 32 seconds left in double overtime.
It was the type of game that could have changed the color of Pullen’s trademark beard.
“I might have some gray spots in there,” Pullen said. “They just wouldn’t give up.”
That much was apparent early on.
Kansas State (29-7) raced to a 19-4 lead barely eight minutes into the game. Xavier (26-9) ended the first half with a 13-3 run to pull ahead 32-31 at the intermission.
That set the theme for the entire game. Whenever Kansas State seemed on the verge of putting things away, Xavier would deliver an improbable response. Xavier seemed intent on avenging a 71-56 regular-season loss to Kansas State.
“That’s March Madness at its finest right there,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “That’s two teams refusing to give in, refusing for their seasons to end. My hat goes off to Xavier.”
Xavier had been dominated on the boards during that Dec. 8 game at Kansas State, but the Musketeers outrebounded the Wildcats 51-40 in the rematch. Xavier guards Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway also managed to outscore Kansas State’s dynamic backcourt duo of Pullen and Denis Clemente.
Pullen scored 28 points while shooting 6-of-12 from 3-point range, and Clemente compiled 21 of his 25 points after halftime. Crawford collected a game-high 32 points and Holloway produced 26 points.
Holloway and Crawford each produced miraculous plays to keep Xavier’s season alive.
Kansas State led 72-69 with 10 seconds left in regulation when Xavier inbounded the ball. The Wildcats intended to commit a foul before Xavier could attempt a game-tying three-pointer, but Holloway fired up an off-balance shot from about 25 feet away as soon as Wildcats guard Chris Merriewether contacted him.
Holloway, who had missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity earlier in the second half, made all three free throws to tie the score with five seconds left.
“I know in a situation like that, teams like to foul,” Holloway said. “I was just thinking to myself, if I knew one of those guys put a hand on me, no matter where I was on the court, I was just going to attempt a shot.”
Xavier rose from the dead again in the final minute of the first overtime period. Kansas State led 87-84 in the final minute as Holloway dribbled around the perimeter in a desperate attempt to find an open shot from beyond the arc. He finally passed to Crawford, who attempted a shot from at least 28 feet away with four seconds remaining.
Swish. Tie game. Double overtime.
“As you make a couple of those shots,’’ Crawford said, “you do kind of think it’s meant to be.”
This shootout between Pullen and Crawford – two of the nation’s top guards – led to some good-natured kidding around as the game headed into a second overtime period. When they weren’t trading big shots, they were exchanging comments.
Pullen recapped their conversation after the game.
“Miss one,” Crawford pleaded to Pullen.
“You miss one,” Pullen replied.
“Let us win,” Crawford said.
“No, let us win,” Pullen answered.
“We can talk about this all night then,” Pullen finally said. “We’re going to play how many overtimes?”
In the end, they only had to play two overtime sessions. Pullen made sure of it.
His 3-pointer from the left side of the key put Kansas State ahead 94-93 with 1:11 remaining. When Xavier’s Jason Love made one of two free throws to tie the score with 51 seconds left, Pullen answered with a 3-pointer from behind the foul line that put the Wildcats in front for good with 25 seconds left.
It was only fitting Pullen delivered the punctuation to this classic game. He already was having arguably the best tournament of any player in the nation.
Pullen added two free throws before Clemente sealed the victory by sinking two more foul shots with 12 seconds left. After scoring 15 points in a first-round victory over North Texas, he compiled 34 points and outperformed BYU standout guard Jimmer Fredette in an 84-72 second-round triumph.
He wouldn’t allow his season to end Thursday night.
“You have to credit Jacob Pullen,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He’s a tremendous player. I love that kid. I don’t like him right now. Big-time guts.”
The silence in the Xavier locker room reflected the heartbreak of a team that had given everything it could offer and still came up empty. Maybe in a few weeks, the pain will fade at least a little bit as the Musketeers can take consolation in the fact they were part of one of the most thrilling tournament games in recent memory.
Mack compared it to an Ali-Foreman bout. He wasn’t the only one making boxing allusions.
“We’re mentally tough and we’re physically tough,” Pullen said. “When they responded with punches, we had to punch back. It was like a heavyweight fight. They didn’t want to get knocked down and we didn’t either.”
Leave it to Pullen to finally deliver the knockout blow.