SALT LAKE CITY | In the Sweet 16, nothing comes easy.
The fans cheer louder, the teams play harder, and when everyone embraces the moment, games have a funny way of becoming legendary.
The Kansas State Wildcats — playing in their first NCAA regional semifinal since 1988 — experienced everything the big stage had to offer against the Xavier Musketeers, and in the end they were tough enough to win a 101-96 double-overtime classic on Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena.
“I was real proud of our guys to find the courage and the character to overcome and win this game,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.
The second-seeded Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight, where they will play No. 5 seed Butler at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
That game could be a lot of fun, too, but it will be nearly impossible to top Thursday. So many incredible plays were made that exuberant CBS announcer Gus Johnson was bursting out of his midcourt seat between overtimes to celebrate the spectacle.
Like everyone else in the arena, he had reason to be excited. It wasn’t until Dante Jackson missed a three-pointer with 25.1 seconds to go and Denis Clemente made two free throws that the game was decided.
There were times that the game had looked decided much earlier.
With the Wildcats up 72-69 in the closing moments of the second half, Chris Merriewether fouled Terrell Holloway in the process of taking a deep three-pointer with 5 seconds remaining. The Kansas State bench wanted a foul called on Clemente moments earlier but didn’t get it.
Holloway made all three free throws, and the game went to overtime.
And that’s when things really got crazy. Behind a string of free throws and midrange shots from Curtis Kelly, who scored 21 points, and Jamar Samuels, who ended with 14 points — and a driving layup from Pullen — the Wildcats clung to an 87-84 lead with seconds left on the clock.
But Musketeers star guard Jordan Crawford hit a deep three-pointer that extended the game another 5 minutes.
“It was a classic,” Pullen said. “Every time we thought the game was over, you could see it in (Xavier’s) eyes — they didn’t want their season to end, either.”
Everyone on the court was tired, and fans didn’t know how to react to what they were witnessing, but K-State finally took charge in the second overtime.
Pullen drained two straight three-pointers that gave K-State a 97-94 lead. Then he and Clemente made four free throws that ended things.
Both players left the floor exhausted, but they hardly seemed to mind. The K-State faithful were euphoric, and the Wildcats had pulled off one of the most memorable wins ever in the NCAA Tournament.
Early on, such a game didn’t seem possible. It looked as if the Wildcats were going to run away with it the way they did when they beat the Musketeers 71-56 in the regular season.
K-State scored 17 straight points in taking a 19-4 lead, and it looked like the tougher team. Wildcats players carried a swagger, and fans could taste a trip to the Elite Eight.
But after starting the game quickly, K-State found itself trailing Xavier 32-31 at halftime.
Unlike the December matchup between these teams, in which K-State took a commanding lead and never let up, Xavier came back — in a hurry.
Behind 11 points from Holloway, who finished with 26, and eight points from Crawford, who finished with 32, the Musketeers ended the half on a 28-12 run and headed into the locker room with the lead.
Xavier played physical basketball during that stretch, and K-State was hampered by foul trouble. Pullen, who scored 28 points, sat on the bench for 5 minutes after picking up two fouls, and Wally Judge and Samuels each had three fouls.
That meant K-State had a game on its hands, and it would have to play knockdown basketball to survive. It was a difficult task considering Pullen committed another quick foul in the second half and went back to the bench.
In need of an intensity boost, Clemente immediately gave the Wildcats the spark they needed. After a quiet first half in which he scored four points, he finished with 25 points and made two of the game’s most impressive plays in less than a minute.
Late in the second half, with Xavier clinging to a 59-58 lead, Clemente dribbled through two defenders and sank a running jumper that made the crowd ooh and ah. Moments later, he drained a fadeaway three-pointer while being fouled on his way to a four-point play.
At that point, K-State led 64-61, but they were never able to pull away until late in the second OT.