Tucson, Ariz. Jacob Pullen untucked his jersey, knelt down and sobbed. And Kansas State basketball fans everywhere sobbed with him.
The senior guard became Kansas State’s career scoring leader Saturday night, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that the Wildcats lost, 70-65, to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament’s third round and are finished.
I didn’t think anything could kill Pullen. He was so good Saturday. Not good, great. And that word doesn’t even do him justice.
It was Pullen this, Pullen that, Pullen, Pullen, Pullen.
But he kicked away the ball on one late possession that looked like a foul until the replay cameras showed it wasn’t. Then, fouled while attempting a three-pointer, he went to the line with three shots to tie. But he missed the middle free throw. And finally, his three-point shot to tie the score was blocked by his Wisconsin counterpart, Jordan Taylor, with two seconds left. It was the only time all night that Taylor got the better of Pullen.
It was Jake’s game until it wasn’t. And I doubt he’ll recover from the shock of losing this one for a long time.
Pullen made 13 of 22 shots. He was 6-of-8 from the three-point line. He was magnificent and would have played 40 minutes if not for some foul trouble. He got his second foul with 7:24 to play in the first half and picked up No. 3 with 15:05 remaining in the game.
It was a tough spot for Kansas State coach Frank Martin. How much do you keep your best player, one of the best players in the country, on the bench because of foul trouble? Or do you let Pullen, who has a world of experience, go on?
In hindsight, it’s easy to say Pullen should have stayed out there. As it was, Pullen’s foul problems caused Martin to change the player’s defensive assignment, moving Pullen off Taylor for much of the game.
It wasn’t a big issue because Taylor had a terrible shooting night, making two of 16 shots. But one of those was a huge three-pointer with four minutes left that gave Wisconsin a 59-57 lead. And his two free throws with 10.1 seconds put the Badgers up by three.
Taylor, despite an off night, was picked up by his teammates. In the first half, Pullen and senior forward Curtis Kelly had all nine of Kansas State’s baskets. There was a little more contribution from others in the second half, but Pullen and Kelly still combined for 49 points and were the only two Wildcats in double figures.
I’m still shocked the Wildcats — make that Pullen — came up short. Pullen is one of those rare players who, when a game is on the line late, can beat five opponents. BYU’s Jimmer Fredette and Connecticut’s Kemba Walker are the others.
Pullen scored K-State’s final eight points and 11 of their last 15.
It was the kind of effort that should have been rewarded with a victory. Pullen should have been carried off the court on the shoulders of his teammates, not draping a towel over his head to hide his devastation.
Pullen finished a great career the wrong way. Wisconsin did what I thought couldn’t be done. The Badgers finished off Pullen and left him crying. At least he wasn’t crying alone.