MANHATTAN — When the celebration drew to a close and the realism of No. 10 Kansas State's victory over No. 1 Texas hit him Monday night, Curtis Kelly became emotional.
The junior forward, who transferred from Connecticut following two lackluster seasons with the Huskies, said it was a moment he'd always wished for. Not just because his 17 points and eight rebounds were key to the K-State win, but because he finally felt like he'd found a home.
"The reason why this game touches me so much is because I came from nothing," said Kelly, his voice cracking. "I transferred from a school, and it was so tough being there. I was so down there. I was so sad there. To come here and to contribute and be part of a family and win against the No. 1 team in the country, it's a dream come true."
During his two seasons at UConn, Kelly averaged 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds. He made one start and often saw less than 10 minutes of playing time.
Not the impact he was expected to make coming out of high school, when he was one of that nation's most sought-after recruits and labeled by many as the best prep player in New York.
But those days seem ages away now. Under the guidance of Wildcat coach Frank Martin, he thinks like he's on his way to reaching his potential.
"I just owe it to Frank for getting me here," Kelly said. "I feel great."
Outplaying two of the best big men in the country — Texas' Dexter Pittman and Damion James — can make anyone feel good. The question now, can Kelly continue to play as well as he did against the Longhorns?
Kelly has been up and down this season, at times dominating the paint with his elegant post moves and at others struggling just to stay on the court. He has scored in double figures 11 times, but five times didn't play more than 19 minutes.
In four Big 12 games alone, he has been tough to figure.
"You guys don't need to be head coaches and watch tape to understand he didn't play well at Missouri," Martin said. "You don't need to watch tape to know that he was just OK at Colorado. But he stepped up big time for us (against Texas) in a big-boy game."
After playing so sparsely at UConn and sitting out a year because of transfer rules, Martin said the inconsistencies were to be expected.
"Curt has so much to give," Martin said. "He's a beautiful human being. But he hasn't played in three years."
The challenges Martin has relentlessly assigned to Kelly haven't been easy, either.
"We don't have until next year to try and get better," Martin said. "We need him to be good right now, because he has so much to give. We've been pushing him and challenging him to grow and to learn how to play the way all those older guys play for us, with that passion, that emotion, that team camaraderie.
"He's growing, he's trying, he's playing his tail off. It's a process. You don't just get out of bed and say, 'Yo, I'm in.' You've got to go through it. You've got to go through it and earn everyone's trust as you go through it."