CHICAGO — When Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin scheduled Saturday's game against Loyola-Chicago at the Gentile Center, everyone imagined a carnival.
Senior guard Jacob Pullen would go home and play in front of more than 100 friends and family, he would effortlessly make a flurry of outside shots and he would liven up the atmosphere throughout a stress-free game.
Pullen wanted it all to transpire that way. But as the game advanced past its early stages, and the fifth-ranked Wildcats were unable to pull away from the Ramblers, he had to adjust his expectations and settle for a hard-fought 68-60 victory.
"On nights like this you can get mad at everything that was wrong," Pullen said. "But at the end of the day, you've just got to find a way to win."
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K-State (9-1) held off Loyola-Chicago (8-3) in large part because of Pullen and his team-first attitude. While he missed 12 of 17 shots, he continually got to the free-throw line and fought for loose balls.
Nothing flashy by his standards, but by game's end he led all scorers with 19 points and snared nine rebounds. He also took charge in huddles and motivated his teammates when Loyola made a late push.
"I don't care if the ball is going in the basket or not," Martin said. "That's a guy who is playing to win."
Pullen's duties could have been made much easier with some help inside. Despite holding a size advantage, the Wildcats’ frontline was unable to match Loyola’s toughness and surrendered 23 offensive rebounds while being beaten on the glass 45-38.
That led to 16 second-chance points for the Ramblers, which allowed them to stay in the game despite a horrid shooting effort — Loyola made 9 of its first 41 shots and shoot 31.3 percent on the afternoon.
"We didn't rebound the ball like we normally do," Pullen said. "We normally demolish teams on the glass, and we weren't able to do that tonight. They were getting offensive rebounds, which is our strength."
As they struggled to wrestle for balls inside, regulars Freddy Asprilla, Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels combined for 11 fouls and spent time on the bench. Jordan Henriquez-Roberts and Victor Ojeleye each had to play significant minutes.
That put a great deal of strain on K-State's already extended defensive efforts.
"When you're letting teams get offensive rebounds, it's going to deflate you," Martin said. "It's going to eliminate your ability to continue to defend, because now guys aren't as aggressive defensively because they're worried about getting back to rebound."
They were also worried about letting the game slip away in the second half. After K-State took a 50-36 lead with 8 minutes, 34 seconds remaining, the Ramblers finally started making a few shots. Led by Ben Averkamp, who scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds, they went on a 19-8 run and pulled to within 58-55 with 2:49 to go.
Earlier in the game, a large contingent of K-State fans had given the crowd of 4,821 a neutral feel. But at that ear-piercing moment, there was no mistaking the home team. Or the bottom line.
"We're just happy to get out of here with a win," said sophomore guard Martavious Irving, who hit two three-pointers and scored 12 points. "At the end of the day it's a road win in a hostile environment."
K-State survived the Ramblers' late run with a three from McGruder, defense and free throws. Loyola stopped getting wide open shots down the stretch and scored five points the rest of the way.
"They take you out of so many things offensively that it's hard to be good offensively," Loyola coach Jim Whitesell said.
Pullen challenged many of those late shots and finished the game off by making three straight free throws as opposing fans chanted "overrated" at the K-State bench.
Not exactly the storybook ending he had in mind. But it sure beat the alternative.
"The main focus for me tonight was making sure that everyone knew that we had to win this game," Pullen said. "All the homecoming and all that stuff was great, but if we would have lost this game, none of it would have meant anything."