AMES, Iowa — For a brief moment, all hope seemed lost. It ended with Kansas State wildly celebrating.
Today, the Wildcats can only hope the broken play that lifted them to a pivotal 86-85 victory over Iowa State on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum ends up resembling their season.
"We didn't execute very good, but we found a way to get it done," said sophomore forward Jordan Henriquez-Roberts. "We found a way to win when we had to, and that's what it's all about."
K-State has Jacob Pullen, its preseason All-American, to thank for that. With 12.6 seconds remaining in the game and the Cyclones leading 85-84, K-State coach Frank Martin confidently drew up a play for Pullen, who led the Wildcats with 21 points, to come off a screen and create off the dribble.
From the get-go, though, the play looked off. Pullen's screen came in the wrong spot on the wing, and he was left to drive through a congested area to get near the basket. Having no other choice, he tried a crossover move and lost the ball.
"My heart sank," K-State guard Nick Russell said.
But the loose ball amazingly bounced to a dead area near Pullen's feet, he scooped it up and made an uncontested layup with 2.6 seconds remaining to win the game.
"No one else saw it, so I picked it up and scored," Pullen said. “.æ.æ. We got lucky and made a play."
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg had a different take.
“Pullen is a heck of a player,” he said. “He’s best in the clutch, and that’s what makes a truly great player. He made a great, clutch play."
Lucky or clutch, K-State needed Pullen's heroics in the worst possible way. With the win the Wildcats (16-8 overall, 4-5 Big 12) inched to within a game of .500 in the league standings with a week off before heading to Colorado next Saturday.
Iowa State (14-10, 1-8) lost another heartbreaker in Hoiberg's first year on the job. He will receive no sympathy from the Wildcats, though, who won consecutive games for the first time since early January, won their first road game since early December and avoided a loss that would have all but doomed their hopes of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
For that reason, the scene inside the visiting locker room was euphoric.
"That's a big win," said freshman guard Will Spradling, who came off the bench to make four three-pointers and score 14 points. "This is the first time we've got two wins in a row in forever. We've just got to keep adding on to that."
K-State can start that quest by continuing to receive strong play from its bench and making shots the way it did against Iowa State.
Martin called on his bench in full force, and it delivered by outscoring Iowa State's subs 44-6. And for only the fourth time all season, K-State shot better than 50 percent from the field, making 33 of 65 attempts.
Spradling led that effort with his outside shooting, but Russell shrugged off a two-month slump (including an extended visit to the bench) to score 13 points, Martavious Irving added 10 and Henriquez-Roberts blocked four shots on top of throwing down a second-half dunk that sent his teammates into a frenzy.
"I trust my bench. That's the way it's always been with me," Martin said. "Unfortunately in the middle part of the season I lost a little bit of that trust. That's a credit to them as players, as young as they are, that they stayed the course and were able to go onto the floor and make plays."
With senior forward Curtis Kelly fouling out after scoring six points in 12 minutes, their contributions were needed. In a back-and-forth game, they carried the Wildcats much of the way and helped them take a 71-65 lead with 9:30 remaining.
But behind Diante Garrett, who scored a game-high 23 points, and Scott Christopherson, who scored 22, Iowa State surged ahead 79-73 with 3:32 to go.
The 12,411 fans on hand could almost taste a win. But Pullen calmed the Wildcats’ nerves during a timeout.
"We're in the huddle all disappointed and stuff," Spradling said. "But we have Jake over there telling us, 'Don't mess up. Plenty of time. We're in this. We're going to come back and win.’æ”
On K-State's next possession, Kelly drained a hook shot in the lane, then Spradling answered a driving shot by Christopherson with a three-pointer and Pullen ended things by scoring the Wildcats' final eight points.
Not exactly how anyone envisioned the game going. But the Wildcats will gladly take the result.
"I don't know if you could say it saved our season, but it was a win that we needed," Pullen said. "It was a win that we needed a lot."