AUSTIN — Throughout the last month, Kansas State has been out to prove its worth to the college basketball world. On Monday night, it won over whatever doubters are still out there.
In a major way.
Its late-season surge continued in front of 16,734 fans at the Erwin Center. The Wildcats, who were left for dead by many a month ago, picked up a 75-70 statement victory over seventh-ranked Texas on national TV.
After all the ups and downs they have suffered this season — top-five ranking to NIT talk to now — players and coaches alike let their emotions show as they walked off floor.
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"I'm just real proud of the guys in that locker room," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "They've never stopped believing in the spirit of our team."
Based on their recent results, K-State players have done much more than simply believe.
K-State has won five straight games and seven of its last eight, with two of those victories coming against Kansas and the Longhorns, the two teams who have been atop the Big 12 standings all season.
That's an accomplishment that senior forward Curtis Kelly, who scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds, said would significantly boost their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. It's also an accomplishment no other team in the conference will be able to match at the end of the regular season.
What does that mean to senior guard Jacob Pullen, who has been so big for K-State during its resurgence and scored 20 points against Texas?
"Maybe we're a good basketball team," he joked. "Everybody just wrote us off. They really thought our season was down the drain. It was just motivation.... Our morale is to the sky."
As it should be. With the win, K-State (21-9, 9-6 Big 12) increased its chances of finishing in the top four of the league standings. At the least, it will head into postseason play as the conference's hottest team.
With the loss, Texas (24-6, 12-3) fell a game behind Kansas in the conference championship race with one to play.
K-State won with a balanced offensive attack and solid defensive approach to the second half. Rodney McGruder led the Wildcats with 22 points, and Shane Southwell and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts both added eight.
Pullen has been the hero so many times of late, but Monday was about his teammates stepping up.
"That's the beauty of having a good team," Pullen said.
The Wildcats hung on late with big plays on both sides of the ball, but at halftime K-State had to feel good about trailing just 33-31. In the opening 20 minutes, Pullen went 2 for 7, McGruder missed badly on two open three-point attempts and the Wildcats committed seven turnovers.
They also had no answer for Longhorns forward Tristan Thompson, who torched them for 18 points and six rebounds in the first half before finishing with 26 and 10. But Kelly and Henriquez-Roberts kept the game close by going inside and consistently making shots and snaring rebounds. At halftime, they combined for 15 points and nine boards.
Then they took advantage of staying close with Texas in the second half. The Wildcats hit the Longhorns with a 15-3 run that ultimately won them the game.
McGruder and Kelly made three shots a piece during that stretch.
"My teammates told me to be ready to shoot and I was ready to shoot," McGruder said. "I hit a couple and they just kept coming."
Pullen finished the run, giving K-State a 43-36 lead on a driving layup. The Longhorns answered back with four quick points, and the sellout crowd raised the decibel level for the first time, but Pullen made sure his team didn't give in to the environment.
In the face of heavy defensive attention, he hit a step-back three to give K-State an eight-point lead and answered a dunk by Thompson with a driving layup on the other end.
"Jake was phenomenal," Martin said.
Both teams traded baskets much of the rest of the way until the Wildcats triumphantly walked off the floor and celebrated.
In that moment, it all came back. The expectations, the excitement, the swagger... everything K-State opened the season with. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball at the best possible time, and they know it.
"At the beginning of the year everybody thought we could beat everybody, nothing has changed," Southwell said. "We just struggled at the beginning of the year. But isn't this what everybody expected?"