MANHATTAN — The Kansas State basketball team survived with Jacob Pullen on the bench. Then it thrived with him on the floor.
Thanks to a solid work from his supporting cast Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum, it didn’t much matter that the senior guard was hampered by three early fouls and played only two minutes in the first half against Virginia Tech. When the Wildcats regained their preseason All-American, they blew open a close game and won 73-57.
Just as Pullen figured they would.
Without Pullen and senior forward Curtis Kelly — still benched by coach Frank Martin — No. 3 K-State had to figure out how to play without their two most heralded players on the fly against the 22nd-ranked Virginia Tech.
Pullen, who scored 13 points, has always considered the Wildcats more than a two-man squad.
“When they saw me go out with that second foul I think a lot of them put their chins up and stepped up to the challenge,” Pullen said. “That’s what it’s about. Good teams don’t win games because of a person. They win games because of a team. Today the team just came
Junior forward Jamar Samuels scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds and passed out five assists. Sophomore guard Rodney McGruder scored 13 points and had nine rebounds. Jordan Henriquez-Roberts came through with 10 points and eight rebounds.
And when K-State most needed someone to step up and play meaningful minutes at guard with Pullen on the bench, freshman Will Spradling did much more than keep the game from getting out hand.
By commanding the offense with authority, scoring five points and playing tough defense in 27 minutes of action, he helped K-State take a 30-29 halftime lead and pull away late.
“He was a lot like Jacob when Jacob was a freshman,” K-State coach Frank Martin said. “For him to not just go out there and hold serve, but to go out there and help us win is a credit to him. He works extremely hard.”
K-State (2-0) needed a team of hard workers against Virginia Tech (1-1). The Hokies came to Bramlage Coliseum with a veteran lineup looking for a signature victory. Defeating the Wildcats in front of a rowdy crowd and an ESPN audience certainly would have qualified.
Behind 22 points from Malcolm Delaney and 12 from Dorenzo Hudson, Virginia Tech challenged K-State for much of the afternoon and held a 40-38 advantage with 14 minutes, 5 seconds remaining.
They made sure the game was physical, and slowed the pace by committing 23 of the game’s 44 fouls. But K-State has no problem with that style. With both teams shooting less than 41 percent from the floor, rebounds were gold and the Wildcats came up with 46 of them compared to the Hokies’ 37.
“It was pretty physical,” McGruder said. “That is the game, as K-State Wildcats, we like to play. That’s our game.”
Virginia Tech’s inability to match K-State on the glass, combined with its failure to build a lead without Pullen in the game, proved costly.
With Pullen on the floor in the second half, the Wildcats went on a methodical 28-9 run to clinch the victory. K-State forced Delaney into several of his nine turnovers during that stretch and got its fast-break offense working.
Martavious Irving made three three-pointers, Henriquez-Roberts and McGruder played tough near the basket, and before you knew it Samuels was slamming home an alley-oop dunk from Pullen with 4:13 to play.
A highlight finish to a workmanlike day.
“I was confident in my team,” Pullen said. “I knew they could play without me. There are days in practice where I might not be in a drill and Frank won’t let them out until I get a stop. I’m comfortable with them. I trust my guys. They were able to keep believing and stay in the game and continue to fight.”