KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Without its top two players in the lineup, Kansas State lost to UNLV 63-59 at the Sprint Center on Tuesday.
It was an agonizing loss for the 11th-ranked Wildcats in front of an electric sellout crowd of 18,422, both because of what occurred on the floor and what transpired before tipoff.
Less than one hour before Tuesday's game, K-State officials announced that senior guard Jacob Pullen and senior forward Curtis Kelly had been declared ineligible by the school for receiving impermissible benefits on the purchase of clothing at a Manhattan department store, which is a secondary violation of NCAA rules.
Pullen will miss three games as a result of a ruling by the NCAA Student-Athlete Reinstatement staff. The compliance staff is continuing to work with the NCAA regarding Kelly's status.
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Two sources indicated a sales clerk who knew Pullen and Kelly allowed them to take more clothing from the store than they paid for. When the store manager discovered the transaction, K-State officials were contacted.
The clothing Pullen and Kelly took from the store exceeded the value of the merchandise paid for. The difference in value is the impermissible benefit. Because Pullen's suspension is specific, K-State has learned the value of his improper benefit. The sources said Kelly's merchandise value was larger and is still being determined.
"These young men have worked hard to represent themselves and Kansas State in a positive manner," coach Frank Martin said in a statement. "Having said that, they made a mistake in judgment and have to pay a price for that decision."
Playing without the senior duo was a major loss for the Wildcats.
When college basketball experts tabbed Kansas State as the nation's third best team in the preseason polls, they did so largely based on the reputations of Pullen and Kelly.
The senior duo came into the year with plenty of hype — Pullen was a preseason All-American, while Kelly was an All-Big 12 selection.
Pullen is K-State's leader on and off the court. Martin uses him at both point guard and shooting guard, and is the Wildcats' best on-ball defender. So far this season, he has struggled to find his outside shot, but has still managed to average 16.5 points and 3.8 assists.
He will miss the Wildcats' next home game against UMKC on Thursday and a game with North Florida on Dec. 31.
Kelly missed K-State's first three games while Martin kept him benched him because of poor practice habits. The New York native has been inconsistent since, but entered Tuesday's game averaging 10.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Neither player was in attendance Tuesday.
The Wildcats had to adjust quickly without them. Martin decided to start sophomore guard Nick Russell in place of Pullen and to use sophomore forward Jordan Henriquez-Roberts instead of Kelly.
The new lineup was competitive, but it took a few minutes for them to match the Rebels' intensity. UNLV jumped out to an 8-2 lead and stayed ahead throughout most of the first half.
"Catching them a little short-handed makes a world of difference," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "There's no denying that."
But it was full of energy. At one point, sophomore swingman Rodney McGruder, who scored 11 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, lost a tooth on a physical play.
"As a whole this is the hardest we've played the entire year as a complete whole," said junior Jamar Samuels, who scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "Everybody on the team was on the floor and always up cheering guys on."
Realizing the untested set of players needed more support than usual, the friendly crowd loudly and enthusiastically cheered every basket. Even made free throws were reason to scream.
"Our fans are off the charts," Martin said. "I couldn't be prouder to be associated with Kansas State University because our fans are just ridiculous how good they are. That's what I'm pissed about, that those people come here to see us play and we don't get it done. That's not acceptable."
That large crowd was, perhaps, at its loudest just before halftime when sophomore guard Martavious Irving, who scored 10 points, made a driving layup to put the Wildcats ahead 29-28. Then again when Russell, who scored a team-high 12 points, sank a three-pointer from 35 feet away just in time to beat the halftime buzzer and give them a 34-32 advantage.
K-State (9-3) was also stronger than the Rebels inside and outrebounded them 43-26. It was in position to beat a respected opponent shorthanded, and increased its lead to six points early in the second half. But in the end it wasn't enough.
UNLV (11-2) quickly pulled back ahead behind 16 points from Tre'Von Willis, and as the Wildcats mounted a charge in the final moments Oscar Bellfield drained a three-pointer to give the Rebels a 59-54 lead. Four made free throws later, it was able to run out the clock and win.
Some would call the close loss a moral victory. Not Irving.
"This is a very talented ball club, and we lost a game, not because we were missing key players or anything of that nature," Irving said. "We've still got to play basketball. We've still got to go out onto that court and play. So us playing hard and all of that, that's how we're supposed to play everyday." Ain't no moral victories. There are only wins and losses."