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K-State built to last after 2OT thriller
SALT LAKE CITY
Ever since Frank Martin took over Kansas State’s basketball program three years ago, he’s been searching for a connection to the past.
Sure, he might not have grown up anywhere near Aggieville, but the Miami native still remembers those glory years of Ernie Barrett, Jack Parr and Mitch Richmond.
During those days, it was the team from Manhattan — not that one from Lawrence — that had the most NCAA wins of any school from the state of Kansas.
Twenty-two years later, Kansas State isn’t anywhere close to Kansas’ current win total.
But a team that appears destined to keep dancing right now is one step closer to a stage that many thought the Jayhawks — not the Wildcats — would be playing on this April.
“These kids’ challenge has been to reconnect with that incredible history,” Martin said after his team pulled out a thrilling 101-96 victory in double overtime over No. 6 seed Xavier Thursday night to reach the Elite Eight.
“It makes me proud that these kids have embraced that, to get that passion of K-State basketball going again.”
It’s a passion that begins and ends with Martin, who remains one of the fieriest coaches in college basketball today and demands the very best from his players on each and every possession.
And finally, they’re starting to see it pay off during the most important stretch of the season.
“It’s a dream come true,” said junior forward Curtis Kelly, who transferred from Connecticut to Kansas State at the end of the 2007-08 season.
“This is truly a blessing.”
The Wildcats, after all, needed a few blessings to get past a relentless Xavier team that showed why it’s been only one of two teams to reach the Sweet 16 three years in a row.
Some of those blessings came from Jacob Pullen, who knocked down clutch shot after clutch shot in both overtime sessions and carried K-State with a team-high 28 points on 6-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc.
“It was two teams who didn’t want the season to end,” the junior guard said. “Every time we thought the game was over, you could see it in their eyes.
“They didn’t want their season to end either.”
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Jordan Crawford, in particular, did everything in his power to not let the Musketeers’ season end.
He scored 32 points, including a 35-foot heave that forced the second overtime.
“Times like that, you got to make big shots,” he said.
“I thought it was meant to be,” the 6-foot-4 sophomore added. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. You got to have some luck to advance in this tournament, too.”
Maybe the luck wasn’t on Xavier’s side.
Or maybe Kansas State just had more weapons in the end.
Between Pullen’s heroics, a 25-point effort from senior guard Denis Clemente and 21 points from Kelly, Kansas State showed it has more than enough offensive firepower to get to Indianapolis and even cut down the nets there.
“It took a lot of courage for our guys to stay the course, especially what happened in regulation and overtime,” Martin said. “That’s what these kids are all about.”
In a sport where upperclassmen have recently been overshadowed by one-and-done freshmen, it was the Wildcats’ experience that ultimately kept their season alive.
“I can understand this is my last tournament,” Clemente explained. “I’m a senior, so I got to lay everything on the court like I’ve been doing.”
Martin, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That’s what these kids have done all year,” he said.
This weekend, Martin and his players get another opportunity to prove their validity in Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown, and it won’t have to come against a No. 1 seed.
Instead, the Wildcats will get to meet a fifth-seeded Butler team that stunned Big East champ Syracuse earlier in the night and has aspirations of playing as the hometown favorite in this year's Final Four.
Kansas State, oddly enough, will be facing its fourth straight non-BCS opponent in this year's NCAA tournament — with a legitimate chance to earn its first Final Four appearance in almost 50 years.
That should be enough motivation for Martin's team to recover from the 50 minutes of craziness that it shared with the Musketeers Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
“As a team, we have to be mentally tougher than everybody,” Pullen said.
Those great Kansas State teams of the past possessed that same brand of mental toughness.
And for the time being, it looks like these Wildcats have it too.
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