If there was a downside to the NCAA tournament's dramatic upset-filled opening two rounds last weekend, it was that the rest of March Madness seemed destined to be a letdown by comparison.
Who would have thought then that Kansas State and Xavier would tear that theory apart by the end of the very next night of basketball?
A pair of double-overtime 3-pointers from guard Jacob Pullen helped the second-seeded Wildcats eke out a 101-96 victory and a berth in the Elite Eight in what was maybe the NCAA tournament's most exciting game so far. The end of regulation and the two overtimes alone featured enough controversial calls, clutch free throws and season-saving 3-pointers to leave Gus Johnson's vocal chords screaming for a cup of hot tea and a lozenge.
"It was a classic," Pullen said. "It was two teams who didn't want their season to end. We didn't play our best game. It was a credit to them, they played good defense, made tough shots. Every time we thought the game was over with, you could see it in their eyes that they didn't want their season to end either."
Kansas State is now one win away from its first Final Four berth since 1964, but earning a date with Butler in the West Regional Final proved to be far more difficult than it appeared when the Wildcats built a 15-point early lead.
After the sixth-seeded Musketeers closed to within three with less than 10 seconds left in regulation, Xavier guard Terrell Holloway headed up court and got fouled as he hoisted up the potential game-tying 30-footer. TV replays appeared to show that the foul came before Holloway's shot, but the referees awarded him three free throws, which the 85.2 percent foul shooter coolly hit to force the first overtime.
The indelible image of the first extra session again came in the final seconds with Xavier trailing by three. This time it was guard Jordan Crawford providing the heroics, firing a 35-footer that will no doubt make its way to YouTube alongside the dunk he had on LeBron last summer.
Kansas State finally snuffed out the Musketeers there thanks to Pullen's smooth shooting stroke. He buried a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 94-93 lead with 1:02 remaining, then hit another one from the top of the key with 31 seconds left to increase the lead to 97-94, and finally hit two more foul shots with 25 seconds left to help ice the game.
For Xavier, the loss shouldn't overshadow a valiant effort to end a season that has proven to be more successful than expected. The Musketeers lost three starters off a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 as well a year ago, yet they captured a share of the Atlantic 10 title along with Temple and avenged their NCAA tournament loss to Pittsburgh from a year ago with a second-round win this season.
"Definitely wanted to come out on the winning end, but you saw this team's fight," Xavier senior Jason Love said. "We've been fighting all year. So many people doubted us, said we weren't going to do this, that. We just kept battling all year. We had such a successful season and everything we did, what we set out to do, our goals, go to the Sweet 16, win 25 games, we set those goals at the beginning of the year and we accomplished all that."
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