LINCOLN, Neb. — Kansas State's final Big 12 game at the Devaney Center was not easy.
With Nebraska fighting for a win that could help its chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, the Huskers played tough, physical basketball.
But Jacob Pullen simply didn’t allow the Wildcats to lose. K-State defeated Nebraska 61-57 behind 27 points and a brilliant second half from the senior guard.
"Jacob just put us on his back," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "That's what good players do."
Pullen, a preseason All-American, has been better than good lately. He has scored 27 or more points in his past three games, and has elevated the Cats along the way.
The Wildcats (19-9, 7-6 Big 12) have won five of their last six games. Wednesday's victory was as important as any of the rest. Not only did it move K-State above .500 in the Big 12 for the first time all season, it keeps it in the mix for a top-four finish in the standings. Much like Nebraska (18-9, 6-7), it had something it needed to accomplish Wednesday.
"It's big," sophomore Jordan Henriquez-Roberts said. "Just competing every day and fighting and preparing for every game. We're on a nice, little winning streak now. We're just trying to keep that up."
There were plenty of times when it looked like that winning streak might end. The Huskers led in both halves, and foul trouble hit the Wildcats hard late.
Senior forward Curtis Kelly, despite not committing a foul in the first half, fouled out with 3 minutes, 43 seconds remaining. He finished with eight points and two blocks. Jamar Samuels, who scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, also fouled out. Henriquez-Roberts committed three fouls.
Not that anyone was surprised by the game's physical, grind-it-out nature.
"I was tired before the game started," Martin said, "because I knew how hard it was going to be."
On top of being difficult, Martin made matters tougher by getting whistled for a technical foul with 5:26 to go, allowing Nebraska to make four straight free throws and cut the Wildcats' 48-43 lead down to one without any time running off the clock.
K-State recovered by scoring six of the game's next nine points. Four came on free throws from Rodney McGruder, who scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Pullen. The other two came on Pullen’s driving layup.
But Nebraska pulled within 54-53 on a driving basket from Lance Jeter, who scored through a blocking foul. He missed the ensuing foul shot, and the rest of the game was decided at the free-throw line.
Normally that would make a game's final moments mundane, but on this occasion it created plenty of drama. In the final minute, K-State chose to foul while leading by three, Nebraska decided to intentionally miss two free throws in an effort to retain possession while trailing and Martin used one of K-State's last timeouts with 21.6 seconds remaining despite Pullen holding the ball unguarded near midcourt and close to 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
He said he called the timeout because McGruder looked confused about what play had been called.
"That's why you save timeouts," Martin said.
But the move allowed Nebraska to double-team Pullen and force the ball to Henriquez-Roberts, who made one of two free throws.
Eshaunte Jones’ three-pointer made it a two-point game with 7.1 seconds remaining, but K-State survived a few tense final moments.
The game fittingly ended with Pullen on the free-throw line, calmly making two shots. With the makes, the struggles of K-State and Pullen in early January seemed years away.
"The beginning of the Big 12, I thought I was playing well, but toward the end of games I wasn't asserting myself and I was being too passive," Pullen said. "I was letting things go and not really forcing the issue. Lately . . . I know I've got to make plays so we can win games."