MANHATTAN | Before exiting his final game at Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday, Jacob Pullen dropped to his knees and kissed the floor he has spent so much time on throughout the past four years.
In front of 12,528 fans, who cheered both the guard's career accomplishments and Kansas State's 67-55 senior day victory over Iowa State, he said goodbye.
"This was the last time I was ever going to be able to step on that Power Cat (logo) and shoot a three, get a rebound, anything like that," Pullen said. "It was an emotional game for me."
It was also a fitting farewell. Following a stirring pregame ceremony to honor Pullen and fellow senior Curtis Kelly, Pullen stayed focused through the sentimental occasion and scored a team-high 17 points to lead the Wildcats to yet another victory.
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With Kelly adding 13 points and eight rebounds, K-State celebrated its final game of the regular season the way it had long intended. The team made a victory lap around the court, slapping hands with every fan that stayed till the end, and Pullen was handed a microphone.
He used the forum to thank his supporters, and let them know he would do everything in his power to bring home a Big 12 Tournament championship next week.
"To go up there," Pullen would later say, "with all the things we've been through, and all the ups and downs and people writing us off, people quitting If we can win three in three days, it would mean a lot to me."
With the win, K-State (22-9 overall, 10-6 Big 12) will have a much more favorable chance of accomplishing that goal than many thought possible a month ago. Thanks to a late-season surge, the Wildcats head into the conference tournament as a No. 4 seed.
They have now won six straight games and eight of their last nine to head into the postseason as the league's hottest team. Should K-State continue its hot play, anything seems possible.
"If we're good enough to put ourselves in that conversation, then we're good enough to beat anyone else in the country," Wildcats coach Frank Martin said. "That's how we look at it."
On Saturday, K-State was able to put the finishing touches on its streak despite at times playing like the way it did early in the season. After Kelly and Pullen fed off the energy of the crowd to score the game's first seven points and give the Wildcats an early 9-0 lead, Iowa State gave them quite a challenge.
Behind 18 points from Diante Garrett, the Cyclones fought back to within 33-29 at halftime and took their first lead, 39-38, with 15 minutes, 19 seconds remaining. Throughout the past month, K-State has scored at a high rate thanks to ball movement and Pullen driving at the basket.
But on this day, the Wildcats were much less active in half-court sets, made 46.8 percent of their shots and turned the ball over 19 times.
"I thought we took good shots, the ball just didn't go through the net for us," Pullen said. "With that happening, that's when defensively you've got to make things happen from defense to get into offense and we were able to do that. Toward the end of the game we were able to make shots."
Still, it wasn't until Will Spradling, who scored 13 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists, and walk-on Devon Peterson, who scored four, came off the bench and made contributions in the second half that K-State was able to pull away.
If not for those contributions, the Wildcats may have suffered their second-straight loss on senior day to Iowa State (16-15, 3-13).
Some will see that as a negative. Not Kelly.
"We're playing better right now," he said. "I think we're starting to grow into our potential."
Well, that and the Wildcats are beginning to defend effectively on a daily basis. A consistently strong defensive effort held the Cyclones, who were coming off a 95-point game against Colorado, to 23 made shots on 62 attempts.
"They played pressure defense and they really got out on the wings and denied," said Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson. "It makes it hard for you to get into your offense. They force you to put it on the floor and they really did that to us today."
Defense is one of Pullen's specialties. So is signing autographs. He displayed both skills Saturday, helping K-State make seven steals and staying at Bramlage Coliseum long after the game was over to satisfy his fans.
"I'm going to ice my wrist," Pullen joked, Sharpie in hand.
Martin encouraged him to enjoy the moment. After four years in the program, he deserved it.
"Jake has earned everything that comes his way," Martin said. "He wins and he produces and he's accountable. Whether we've won or lost he comes out and answers your questions every single day. He's a stand-up kid. I wish I would have been that stand-up when I was 21 years old."