TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – Making one mistake after another in the closing minutes, Kansas State kept giving Utah State chances. The Wildcats pulled it out, of all places, from the free throw line.
Jacob Pullen scored 22 points and hit some big free throws down the stretch, helping Kansas State hold off Utah State 73-68 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, the Aggies’ seventh straight opening loss.
Pullen didn’t show any ill affects from the flu that kept him out of practice Wednesday, scoring 10 points in the first half as fifth-seeded Kansas State (23-10) built an 11-point lead. The Wildcats allowed Utah State (30-4) climb back in it with a string of miscues, but closed it out from the line to squelch the 12-5 upset.
A 64 percent foul-shooting team during the season, Kansas State hit nine of 10 from the line in the final 1:08 and 24 of 28 overall to move into the third round of the Southeast Regional against Wisconsin on Saturday.
Tai Wesley overcame early foul trouble to score 18 points, Brockeith Pane added 17 and Pooh Williams 16 in what was a gritty-but-disappointing finish to a superb season at Utah State.
Utah State came into the tournament on a roll and looking for a win.
The Aggies have been regulars in the NCAA tournament, getting in eight of 12 years, including three straight. They just haven’t done much once they’ve gotten there, bounced after one game six straight times, 14 of 15 since 1971.
Utah State, despite getting a lower seed than expected, hoped this would be the year it ended the streak, get out of that reintroduce-yourself-every-year mode and become one of those mid-majors everyone knows about.
Tenacious and disciplined, the Aggies had their best season ever behind six seniors, rolling through the WAC regular season and tournament to set a school record for wins.
But, like all those other NCAA tournament berths before — thanks to high seedings — Utah State faced a team that presents matchup problems.
Long, athletic and full of in-the-jersey defenders, Kansas State is unlike anything the Aggies see in the WAC.
The matchup the Aggies was going to be a head-butting of strengths: Kansas State’s swarming D against Utah State’s patient offense.
The Wildcats’ goal was to disrupt the Aggies’ offensive sets, not let them get to the spots they want on the floor or get the ball into Wesley in the post.
K-State did just that in the first half, making every shot a chore for the Aggies, even the ones that went in. Wesley was almost nonexistent, limited to two points and three due to foul trouble.
The combination left Utah State down 33-22 at the half and seemingly in big trouble.
Wesley helped the Aggies keep K-State in sight back by getting to the rim, scoring eight quick points in the second half. The Aggies made one last push, pulling within 56-50 when K-State’s Rodney McGruder was called for an intentional foul on Pane — Brady Jardine hit the free throws when Pane hurt his arm — and Williams threw down a dunk.
Kansas State wouldn’t let them any closer, though, answering every big shot Utah State made down the stretch from the line.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)