KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- By now Kansas State is used to the big stage.
After making a nice run on neutral courts in front of national television audiences last March in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats made a name for themselves and entered this season with a high ranking.
Still, there were questions as to how they would handle their first return to that intensity-packed setting Monday night at the Sprint Center with several new players on their roster and a target on their backs.
But if fourth-ranked K-State's 81-64 victory over 22nd-ranked Gonzaga in a semifinals game of the CBE Classic in front 18,630 fans and the ESPN2 cameras is any indication, the Wildcats haven't changed much in the past few months.
K-State took the floor with more enthusiasm than it has shown all season, and led the Bulldogs from start to finish. The Wildcats scored the game's first seven points, took a 49-32 lead late in the first half and held off Gonzaga the rest of the way.
After scoring many of his game-high 18 points, senior guard Jacob Pullen hopped up court and motioned to the many K-State fans in attendance. Following a handful of key defensive plays, junior Jamar Samuels slapped the court in excitement.
As the Wildcats headed for the locker room to celebrate, they lifted their arms into the air and screamed the same way they did after postseason wins last year. And just like those memorable outcomes, they now advance to an even more pressure-packed game.
By defeating Gonzaga, K-State set up what is sure to be one of the most anticipated games of the early college basketball season. At 8:30 p.m. today, it will return to the Sprint Center and take on top-ranked, defending national champion Duke in the CBE Classic championship.
Fans from all across the nation will tune in to see the top-five affair.
It will be a challenging game for the Wildcats, but they should have no problem handling the nerves that come with it.
On Monday, they handled whatever Goosebumps they had by draining three-pointers. They sank 12 shots from beyond the arc, and started off hot by draining nine of their first 11.
"We got open looks," Pullen said. "We tell our guys to shoot the ball. That's what we did today."
Pullen made four, freshman Will Spradling, who scored 13 points, made two and Rodney McGruder chipped in 10 points.
"I think our guys grew as the game went on," K-State coach Frank Martin said.
The Bulldogs were led by 17 points from Robert Sacre and 15 from Steven Gray, but were only able to make three of 12 three-point shots, and couldn't keep up.
Demetri Goodson, hit a layup to cut K-State's lead to 51-45 early in the second half, but Gonzaga could get no closer. Samuels immediately hit a
hook shot, Pullen made a three-pointer, Samuels hit a layup and Curtis Kelly scored his first points of the season to give the Wildcats a 60-47 lead with 13 minutes, 57 seconds remaining.
K-State cruised from their, and led by as many as 22 when McGruder made two free throws to put the Wildcats up 78-56.
They also rotated in six different forwards, and wore Gonzaga down late in the second half. They won from both the outside and inside.
"The depth we have in our front line is amazing," Pullen said. "We can continue to throw people at you That's what we hang our hat on. We feel like we have an army of people. We've got guards we've got depth. We feel like we're one of the deepest teams in the country."