TUCSON In the closing moments of Kansas State's 73-68 victory over Utah State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, Jacob Pullen began cracking jokes with officials.
Much like the 10,293 fans in attendance, he knew the Wildcats were going to advance, and that meant he could finally exhale.
After missing Wednesday's practices because of an illness, some speculated K-State was a potential upset victim. Playing in the only second-round game that featured two ranked teams, the No. 5-seed Wildcats were expected to have their hands full with the No. 12-seed Aggies even at full strength.
"As soon as I saw the pairings on Sunday I was somewhat concerned," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "As excited as I am with my team, I was concerned because Utah State has grown men."
But the game never lived up to the hype. K-State wouldn't allow it, taking control early and maintaining a lead throughout the second half.
K-State advances to Saturdays 7:40 p.m. game against 4-seed Wisconsin. The game will be televised on TNT, Ch. 30.
Thursdays game got close at times late, but it was exactly the night K-State was hoping for. With Pullen still showing some signs of discomfort after spending a day alone at the team hotel, the Wildcats didn't want to overwork the senior guard.
"He didn't have energy," Martin said.
That didnt matter. Even though he started and led all scorers with 22 points, he received plenty of help from his teammates and was never leaned on in a crucial situation.
Curtis Kelly, Rodney McGruder and Shane Southwell provided the most assistance. The trio defended well throughout the game and forced Utah State into committing more fouls than it is accustomed to.
By drawing several charging fouls in the first half, the Wildcats left the Aggies no choice but to sit Tai Wesley, their top big man, for nine minutes before halftime. While he was in the game, it was tied at 10-10. But the Wildcats went on a 16-5 run with him spending most of the time on the bench.
"I picked up a few silly fouls and I was frustrated and flustered," Wesley said. "I didn't play well."
During that time, the Aggies seemed horribly overmatched.
"That stretch in the first half was the difference in the game," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said.
The Wildcats' taller frontcourt gave them second chances on most possessions, and whenever Utah State doubled Curtis Kelly, who scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists, he often found the open man for an uncontested shot.
"We can't win today without him," Martin said. "He guarded, he scored, he passed. He was good."
K-State led by as many as 14 and grabbed 33 rebounds, besting Utah State by four. It took a 33-22 halftime lead.
Wesley, who scored 18 points and grabbed five rebounds, returned to the court in the second half, and sparked his team to six straight points to start it, making things interesting at 33-28. But K-State responded with six straight points of its own two driving layups by Pullen sandwiched around a dunk by Jordan Henriquez-Roberts to regain its double-digit lead.
Utah State made a push to make the score 56-50 with 3:45 remaining, and refused to quit in the final minute, but couldn't pull any closer than five points. Because of its initial deficit, it never seriously challenged late.
Henriquez-Roberts finished with six points and five rebounds, Southwell and McGruder both added 10 points. Brockeith Pane scored 17 for Utah State, while Pooh Williams chipped in 16.
K-State benefited from a more balanced effort that saw four of its players reach double figures and seven score overall.
It was the type of help Pullen required.
"When you get to this point in the season there are things that go bad and things that go good," Pullen said. "At the end of the day it doesn't really matter. You've just got to find a way to have one more point than the other team and that continues your season."