SALT LAKE CITY — Kansas State is trying to get back on the big-time basketball map, rekindle a tradition that exists, even though most of it's in black and white.
No better way to do it than by winning a game no hoops fan will soon forget.
Jacob Pullen hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second overtime Thursday to help K-State outlast Xavier 101-96 in the West Regional semifinals — a game that immediately went down as an instant classic.
"As good a game as I've ever coached or been a part of," Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
It added yet another dramatic chapter to an NCAA tournament that has already been memorable, filled with bracket-busters and buzzer-beaters. This was the fifth game to go to overtime — and the second that went to double OT.
After knocking off one so called mid-major in Xavier, the second-seeded Wildcats (29-7) will play another Saturday in fifth-seeded Butler.
This is the first time Kansas State has made it this far since 1988, and the Wildcats are shooting for their first Final Four in 46 years — back before the shot clock or the 3-point line, when Tex Winter was coaching in the Little Apple, not working with Phil Jackson.
"My challenge and our challenge has been to reconnect with that incredible history," Wildcats coach Frank Martin said. "It makes me proud that these kids have embraced that, to get that passion of K-State basketball going again."
The sixth-seeded Musketeers (26-9) were seeking their third trip to the regional finals in seven years. They missed, just barely, but it was hard to call anyone a loser on this night.
Trailing by three at the end of regulation, Xavier's Terrell Holloway got fouled while heaving up a 30-footer with 5 seconds left and calmly made all three free throws. Xavier was down by three again at the end of the first overtime, but Jordan Crawford jacked up a 35-footer that hit nothing but net.
"When you make a couple of them shots, you do kind of start to think that it's meant to be," Crawford said. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen that way."
Instead, it turned into the next great moment for Kansas State in a season that took on its own personality in January, when Pullen decided to let the beard he grows along his jawline turn into something Abe Lincoln could love — and the K-State administration went along with it, passing out fake beards to fans who came to Bramlage Coliseum.
Now, the whole team has facial hair and fans wear T-shirts that say "Fear the Beard."
Only lovable if the team plays well, and at this point, there's no arguing that.
"Real proud of our guys to find the courage and character to figure out a way to overcome some of our mistakes and some of the shots that Xavier made," Martin said.
With Pullen slowed down and in foul trouble, Denis Clemente kept Kansas State in it, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half.
It looked as though Kansas State had it wrapped up when Pullen made a 3-pointer and two clutch free throws late in regulation to help the Wildcats take a pair of three-point leads.
"It was an emotional roller-coaster," Pullen said. "I hit a shot at the end of the game, I'm thinking, 'That's game. That's the nail in the coffin.'"
Xavier still had 9.7 seconds left, though, and needed to go the length of the court and make a 3-pointer. Martin called on the familiar strategy of trying to foul before a Xavier player could take the shot.
Clemente and Chris Merriewether were hacking away at Holloway (26 points), but no whistle came — until Holloway, feeling the slaps, heaved up a shot from 30 feet and got the whistle with 5 seconds left. He hit all three free throws — and the first overtime was on.
"Denis tried to foul beforehand, but the ref didn't see it," Pullen said. "And then Chris went to foul again, and Holloway made a smart play and put the ball up."
K-State's inside team of Curtis Kelly (21 points) and Jamar Samuels (14) did most of the damage in the first OT to make it 87-84 with 18.1 seconds left. But, proving that no three-point lead is safe against Xavier, Crawford spotted up from 35 and made it to force the decisive OT. The sophomore finished with a career-high 32 points.
"Just one of those moments," Pullen called it.
Xavier led 93-91 with 1:23 left in the second overtime. Exhausted and in foul trouble, the Musketeers had no answer for Pullen at the end. He hit an open 3 from the top of the key for a 94-93 lead with 1:09 left. Jason Love made one of two free throws on the next possession, then Pullen hit the next 3 to make it 97-94.
Pullen and Clemente then combined for four straight free throws over the last 24 seconds to ice the game.
A superb effort by both teams that nonetheless featured 53 fouls, as the refs tried to gain control of a meeting between opponents who were playing for the fourth time in four seasons. The first three were brutal contests that weren't particularly close or fun to watch.
The fourth one — a real beauty, though the long-term effects of it could be serious.
Pullen played 40 minutes and Clemente played 48. They had less than 48 hours to get ready for Butler.
"Usually I say, 'How do you get the guys ready to play Saturday?'" Martin said. "I say, 'I'll get after them.' But I can't get after them tomorrow."
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