K-State win from past still resonates
Ten years later, the most iconic play from Kansas State’s epic 101-96 double-overtime victory over Xavier in the Sweet 16 round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament remains the three-pointer that Jacob Pullen made at the top of the key in the waning moments of a game that felt like it might never end.
K-State replays the shot from an overhead angle before the start of every home basketball game at Bramlage Coliseum, and fans still cheer as if they are watching it for the first time.
The exuberant play-by-play call from Gus Johnson enhances the excitement as the Wildcats take a 97-94 lead over the Musketeers with 35 seconds remaining.
Many know everything about that sequence by heart. Pullen fakes as if he is going to run underneath a baseline screen and instead zips up the middle of the floor, Denis Clemente finds him wide-open with a pass from the right wing and the ball swishes through the net.
But few know the back story. In some ways, it is more fascinating than the play itself.
“We had never coached that,” former K-State coach Frank Martin said while reminiscing about the classic game this week. “We had never, ever rehearsed that. That was just a special play by two special players.”
One of the most famous plays in recent K-State basketball history was improvised. How about that?
Martin still chuckles thinking about it. At the beginning of the possession, he instructed the Wildcats to run one of his favorite plays – Motion 2. He has been calling it since he was a high school coach in south Florida and he still uses it today at South Carolina.
It was designed to get Pullen open for a corner three, but Xavier saw the play coming and shifted its defense when Curtis Kelly began to set a screen in the low post. Pullen’s defender ran to where Pullen was supposed to be, allowing Clemente to space the floor and leave acres of room for Pullen at the top of the key. It was backyard basketball at its finest.
“Jacob saw his defender cheating and cut the play off,” Martin said. “I’m on the sideline wondering what in the world is going on, but it was great read by two special players that understood how to
play with each other.”
PLAYERS TAKING CONTROL
That shot helped No. 2 seed K-State pull away from No. 6 seed Xavier for victory after a long, 50minute stretch of backand-forth competition.
But it wasn’t the only time K-State players took control of the offense that night.
Martin has never watched a full replay of the game, though he plans to change that at 5 p.m. on Friday when he says he will live-tweet a classic broadcast of the contest when it airs on CBS Sports, so he doesn’t remember everything about that night in Salt Lake City, Utah.
But he vividly remembers a timeout in the second half when Clemente took over as offensive coordinator.
K-State’s coach wanted to run a play for Clemente and Pullen, but Clemente interrupted and suggested Four Down, a play that would put Jamar Samuels in a post-up situation, was the better call. Martin worried Xavier would foul Samuels, then just a sophomore, and he would miss his free throws. But he allowed Clemente to make the call, saying, “It’s your team.”
On the next two possessions, Samuels hit Clemente for a three-pointer and then threw down an and-one dunk.
“We ran those plays to perfection,” Martin said. “Denis just smiled and ran by me on the sideline, saying ‘I got you.’”
There’s a reason why he still refers to Pullen as the “star” of that team and to Clemente as “the engine.”
Plays like that were only half of the reason why some point to that game as a March Madness classic.
Xavier delivered its fair share of memorable moments, too. K-State raced to a 19-4 lead, but Martin recalls telling his assistant coaches there was no way the Wildcats could sustain that pace.
The Wildcats and Musketeers had some history. Three years earlier, Xavier had pummeled K-State 103-77 in Cincinnati. Martin remembers that as “the worst game of Michael Beasley’s college career,” and Pullen took the beatdown personally. K-State got revenge in a nonconference game in 2009 at home, but Martin didn’t put much stock in that game.
He knew the NCAA Tournament rematch was going to be a nail-biter, even though the Wildcats won 29 games that season.
Xavier stars like Jordan Crawford (32 points) and Tu Holloway (26 points) proved him right.
K-State answered with 28 points from Pullen, 25 from Clemente, 21 from Curtis Kelly and 14 from Samuels … and it was barely enough to win.
After a slow start, Crawford and Holloway captured lightning from the three-point line. Crawford drained a three from Damian Lillard range, standing on a breast-cancer awareness logo near midcourt, to force a second overtime. It seemed like they couldn’t miss.
“They were really good,” Martin said. “They had experience, they had a great point guard, they had depth on the front line, they had a roster full of hard-playing and competitive young men and that Crawford kid played in the NBA for a long time.”
Xavier played at a high level. So did K-State. Both teams were better than 42% from the three-point line. K-State’s win probability soared above 90% three different times in the final 11 minutes of the game, only for Xavier to fight back and give itself a 61.2% of winning in double overtime.
It was an aesthetically pleasing game to watch.
Johnson, then a broadcaster for CBS, couldn’t contain his excitement at midcourt. He jumped out of his chair several times in overtime, pumped his fists and enthusiastically called the action as if he were a fan. That’s what made it such a memorable game.
Martin lived and died with every twist and turn until he was in the handshake line marveling with then Xavier coach Chris Mack about what had just transpired. Then Martin got emotional.
“The majority of those guys signed up to play for me at Kansas State when I had no contract,” Martin said. “I was a first-time head coach so there was a special bond between those players and me and our staff.”
That game was also a learning experience for Martin.
K-State was in position to win in regulation, holding a three-point lead with the final buzzer approaching, when Martin instructed his players to intentionally foul Xavier before it could attempt a threepointer. Clemente did his best to foul Holloway as he crossed midcourt, but the officials didn’t call anything. Then Chris Merriewether was whistled for a foul as Holloway attempted a three.
He made all three free throws with 5 seconds remaining and sent the game to overtime, making it difficult for the Wildcats to recharge for an Elite Eight matchup it lost against Butler two days later.
Martin says that experience helped him take South Carolina to a Final Four in 2017.
“One of my biggest lessons in coaching came at that moment,” Martin said. “I didn’t tell the referees we intended to foul. You have to be careful there. You can’t just go tackle someone. They didn’t know what we were doing, so they didn’t call the foul. I learned a big lesson there. Anytime I’m in that moment now, I inform the referees of what is about to happen.”
Had K-State lost that game because of that foul, Martin never would have forgiven himself.
Fortunately, Clemente and Pullen had a special play in the works as the classic game went on.
“I’m not going to ever say that is the best game ever played in the NCAA Tournament,” Martin said.
“I just don’t believe in that. But when you talk about the greatest games of the NCAA Tournament you better include that one. It was incredible.”
Kansas State's Denis Clemente celebrates after beating Xavier in their Sweet 16 round matchup in 2010 in Salt Lake City. K-State replays Jacob Pullen’s clutch shot from an overhead angle before the start of every home basketball game.
Kansas State coach Frank Martin leaves the court to the applause of Wildcat fans in 2010 in Salt Lake City.
Fans hold giant heads of Kansas State’s Denis Clemente, left, head coach Frank Martin, center, and Jacob Pullen as they celebrate the regional semifinal win in 2010.