Thursday night’s west regional semi-final at Energy Solutions Arena lacked the sex appeal offered by so many of the games in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Fans looking for magnetic story lines about a shepherd boy and a Philistine giant need not bother. The game offered not a one or a double digit seed.
Instead, Frank Martin’s Kansas State Wildcats and Chris Mack’s Xavier Musketeers carried the common tags of two and six seed – not much cause for excitement amongst casual fans.
Outside Cincinnati and Kansas City, CBS relegated the game to the occasional glimpses decided upon by a producer. Fans outside those regions relied upon a live stream online.
The match offered no catchy personalities. Fans can search both rosters. There is not much hype to be found. Kansas State has Jacob Pullen. He inspires denizens of the Fred Bramlage Coliseum to wear mock beards. Xavier’s Jordan Crawford created a stir last summer when he posterized a king.
Other than that, bracket aficionados could dismiss this game as another line on their sheet.
What the game lacked in allure, it made up for with substance.
Pressuring the ball, contesting every shot, and pounding the glass K-State sprinted to an early lead. Wally Judge tapped in a Jamar Samuels miss, and the Wildcats led by 15 after eight minutes of play.
Then, almost as consequence of their aggressiveness, the Wildcats’ lead dwindled. Fouls mounted as the Musketeers got up from the canvas and took a one-point lead at half-time.
Kansas State found their second wind during half time.
Denis Clemente’s layup less than 20 seconds into the second stanza marked the first of seven lead changes over the twenty minute span. K-State stretched their lead to seven with less than nine minutes remaining.
Xavier fought back and reclaimed the lead on Crawford’s three pointer with 2:20 to go.
Free throws by by Pullen and Curtis Kelly along with a three pointer from Pullen gave the Wildcats a three-point in the final minute.
Xavier was not to be denied.
With time winding down, Terrell Holloway came off a high-ball screen set by Crawford. The play gave Crawford a chance to roll into space for a game-tying three. Instead, Pullen followed the Xavier shooting guard, and his teammate, Chris Merriewether reached to stop Holloway. It did not matter that the Xavier point guard was 25 feet from the basket. As soon as the contact was made, Holloway went into his shooting motion. Xavier’s point guard followed one of the game’s oldest rules of thumb: if you have the ball and get fouled, take a shot. The sophomore calmly sank three free throws to send the game into overtime.
The dizzying pace continued in the extra round.
Xavier scored first. Holloway found Crawford on an alley-oop.
K-State responded. Kelly hit an open jumper from the free throw line. A minute later, he converted two from the charity stripe. The Wildcats maintained the lead for the next three minutes.
Xavier, though, had more dramatics in them.
Down three, Crawford caught the ball at the top of the key and dribbled to the right side of the floor. K-State’s defense gave him nothing, so he took it – a thirty foot jumper that hit nothing but net. The Wildcats played their best defense, and Xavier was just better.
The flurry continued from there as the combatants traded leads in the second overtime.
Pullen’s second consecutive trifecta gave K-State a three-point lead with 35 ticks in the game. Pullen executed a perfect L-cut. Clemente handled the ball on the opposite foul line extended, Pullen cut to free throw line before stepping back on the perimeter. With the ball in flight, Pullen nimbly set his feet in perfect timing with ball’s arrival – step, catch, step, lift, and release. It was a polished move created by hours of practice.
Xavier got its chance to tie, but an open look rimmed out. Kansas State secured the rebound and converted free throws to win.
Martin and Mack met at mid court. The words they exchanged were inaudible. It does not matter. Their body language said it all. The two coaches knew the importance of what they just accomplished. Their teams played the game to its fullest.
Dr. James Naismith gets credit for creating the game. A physical education teacher in Massachusetts, he was given the task of creating an indoor game to help students cope with the long winters. What at first was a simple activity designed to help students make productive use of their time became more than that. Naismith, a minister, saw the game as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Human beings bonded by a common interest and growing through competition. Opponents giving their best, and, as a result, everyone improving together.
The game has changed a little since Naismith’s introduction. Iron rims and nets replaced peach baskets. A shot clock dictates flow. Tattoos have become commonplace. But the game can still have the same impact. Thursday night, the Xavier Musketeers and Kansas State played the game the way it was intended.