TUCSON, Ariz. – Jacob Pullen yanked the towel over his eyes to cover his tears. He’s still too young to understand that nobody would dare think of him any differently for breaking down. He had played the game of his life and lost. Life, it turns out, can be a cruel game itself.
For all of Pullen’s brilliance Saturday night – the stepback 3-pointers, the fearless drives, the vise-grip defense, the imploring of Kansas State teammates to, if not match him, at least better themselves – there came the sobering reality: 70-65 in favor of the Wisconsin Badgers or, more accurate, not in favor of Pullen's Wildcats.
He scored 38 of those points and became K-State’s leading career scorer in the process. He hounded the opposing point guard to the worst shooting night of his season. Three days after wishing away a triple-digit fever, Pullen spent 32 minutes trying to salvage at least one more game from his college career. He couldn’t.
“All individual accolades and stuff, I care nothing about,” Pullen said. “I’ll pass up on all of them. I’ll be 100th in scoring if that would have got me to the Final Four. That is all I wanted. I wanted a ring.”
And the worst part – the part that no doubt choked him up – was that he missed the shot that could have kept that dream alive.
Jordan Taylor smiled. It was a winning smile, not the sort generally worn by someone coming off a 2-of-16 shooting performance. The Taylor-Pullen matchup highlighted all the pregame chatter. But to call what happened a matchup is inaccurate. Pullen disemboweled Taylor on both ends of the floor.
“The scoreboard on the bottom of the TV doesn’t say Jordan vs. Jacob,” Taylor said. “It says Wisconsin vs. Kansas State. And Wisconsin won.”
That is why he could smile. And because with three seconds left and Wisconsin ahead 68-65, Pullen tried to free himself on the left wing. It was supposed to be a double screen. One K-State player botched the assignment. The pass was supposed to come from the top of the arc. It came from the right wing. The Wildcats flubbed the most important play of their season, yet the ball still landed in Pullen’s hands with time on the clock.
Seven seconds earlier, still ahead by three, Taylor had fouled Pullen on a 3-pointer. Pullen made the first, missed the second and made the third. Taylor couldn’t foul Pullen again. He couldn’t give him a clean shot, either. He jumped. Pullen did, too, and the weight of K-State finally kept him down. There was no lift on the shot. Taylor swatted it away like an errant fly. Pullen crumbled. Taylor exulted.
“He was the best player on the floor tonight,” Taylor said. “But we’re moving on and going to New Orleans, so that’s all that matters.”
Frank Martin yelled. He does this a lot. Martin is probably the scariest person in college basketball, the male Medusa, whose stare will turn you to stone. His voice is equally intimidating, and he wasn’t happy with the innocuous question that turned his 21-year-old point guard to mush.
“That is what you wanted to see?” Martin said. “That what you were trying to get out of him? Make him cry here in front of people?”
Pullen composed himself.
“I just wanted to win,” he said.
For 135 games over the past four seasons, Pullen tried to. He played third wheel as a freshman to Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, stayed in Manhattan when they went to the NBA, led K-State to the Elite Eight last season, returned to do it again, got suspended for taking a discount on clothes, returned to dominate the Big 12 and played Rudolph for a team that so desperately needed someone to pull its sleigh.
And now it was all done. He had the ball. He took a shot. He missed. He blamed himself. He mourned in the towel. He had every reason to feel proud. He felt not the slightest bit of pride.
“You can coach a long time and never come across another one like him,” Martin said. “I’m lucky. God’s been good to me, man. I’ve always been around good players and good players that are better people. And he’s first-class, from the first day he walked on campus to when he walks for his degree here in about a month.”
Martin walked off the dais and yielded it to Wisconsin. Winners always get the last word.
Taylor admitted that he had forced things offensively, which, on occasion, he has to do. Wisconsin’s offense is as high octane as a Kia, and when Taylor turns hot, he is one of the best players in the country. He pulled a Pullen against Ohio State this year – and handed the Buckeyes their first loss.
Bo Ryan finished the chat. He is in his 10th season at Wisconsin. This is his 10th NCAA tournament appearance. Ryan is rather defensive about his team’s reputation, though not enough so that he augments it. The Badgers play smart, they play hard, they play well. Yes, Ryan admitted, 2-of-16 is revolting. Six assists weren’t. Zero turnovers definitely weren’t. Nor the 6-of-6 at the free-throw line. The Badgers didn’t win in spite of Taylor, not by any means.
“He’s not going to throw the rest of it away simply because things have gotten away from him,” Ryan said. “Because he is that dedicated to being the leader on this team on the floor. He never wavered from that the whole time.”
As Taylor celebrated with his Badgers teammates on their victory and looked forward to facing Butler in the Sweet 16, Pullen tried to compose himself. He stood at the back of the handshake line, walked slowest through it and was the final one off the court. He buried his face in his jersey. It was the last time he’d wear it, and the last one he’d wear before a lucky NBA team gets him.
Before the tears started, Pullen tried to say something. The game, cruel and wonderful, maddening and sublime, had done him wrong. He mustered only three clear words. “I don’t know,” he said.
He wasn’t supposed to.