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March 20, 2011The final shot attempt in the amazing career of Jacob Pullen was too strong. The Kansas State senior guard had taken 827 3-pointers over the past four years. His 828th attempt -- a 35-footer that bounced off the back of the rim just before the final buzzer -- would be his last in a Wildcats uniform. Pullen, who became the all-time leading scorer in school history, displayed boundless heart behind a career high-tying 38 points in a 70-65 loss to Wisconsin.
Afterward, he covered his head with his jersey, overcome with emotion following the fifth-seeded Wildcats' defeat against the fourth-seeded Badgers in the Southeast Regional at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
For four years, Pullen fueled his team with emotion as a indomitable competitor that matured to greatness behind his ability to carry his teammates. On the coldest setting of the NCAA Tournament, the postgame podium following a season-ending and career-ending loss, the only three-time co-captain in K-State history struggled for words when asked about his historic night, the loss, and his emotions at the moment.
"I don't know. It's tough," he said. "You know, I wanted to win?"
Pullen began to tear up and K-State coach Frank Martin retorted to reporters, "That's what you wanted to see? That's what you were trying to get out of him? Make him cry here in front of people? Good question."
Pullen continued, "I just wanted to win the game. I don't care about the scoring record or anything else, man. I wanted to get to the Final Four and I didn't get a chance to do that."
For as much heartbreak as the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Pullen felt following his 135th and final contest -- one of many marks that now bear his name in K-State record book -- he fittingly floated into history early in the second half. Of all the school-record 2,132 points Pullen tallied, arguably no two were sweeter than the high-flying method by which he reached the decisive 2,116 points to eclipse the 2,115 points by Mike Evans between 1974 and 1978.
On the play, Pullen bounded down the middle of the lane on a fast break, tucked the ball with his right hand in mid-air and faked a behind-the-back pass to fool Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, then laid the ball softly off the glass with 17 minutes, 39 seconds remaining. That gave K-State a 37-36 lead and also left the TNT college basketball analysts, along with the Wildcat Nation, awash in mass hysteria.
Of course, Pullen, who scored 22 points in the Wildcats' second-round win over 12th-seeded Utah State to advance to Saturday's contest, insisted that he didn't want to know how many points he needed for the scoring record.
No, he didn't want to know. And moments after his final game, he didn't know how to summarize his career, either.
He didn't know how he might be remembered by the Wildcat Nation years from now.
"I don't know," he repeated. "You know, the competitor in me, I just want to win. I wanted them to remember me as a person that led the team to a Final Four, another Elite Eight. And the outcome of this game didn't allow that to happen."
Pullen went 13-for-22 from the floor, connected on 6 of 8 3-pointers and made 6 of 8 free throws. He scored 17 of his team's first 26 points in the game and along the way passed Kansas' Nick Collison into fourth-place on the all-time scoring list in Big 12 Conference history.
Then Pullen came out in the second half and scored eight of the first 10 points. During that stretch, he drained a 3-pointer, sailed for his record-breaking layup, then nailed another attempt from beyond the arc -- his fifth 3-pointer in five attempts.
"He's had games like that before," K-State freshman guard Will Spradling said, "but that's one of the more memorable ones."
Sophomore center Jordan Henriquez-Roberts had an idea what to expect from his senior leader long before the opening tip.
"Jacob came out and gave it all -- 110 percent," he said. "This was nothing new from Jacob. Knowing this could be his last game, I knew he would come out and lay it on the line."
A year ago, in a matchup of two highly regarded guards, Pullen outplayed BYU's Jimmer Fredette in the NCAA Tournament. This time, he outshined Taylor until the final minute.
Pullen scored K-State's final eight points during the last 3:41. He seemingly single-handedly willed the Wildcats to the final buzzer. With K-State trailing 66-63, Taylor fouled Pullen a 3-point attempt with 10.1 seconds to go. Pullen made the first shot from the foul line but missed the second before he drained the third.
Seconds later, Taylor answered with two free throws of his own.
It was all still there -- the chance to tie, the chance to keep one of the greatest careers in K-State history alive -- with 8 seconds left. But Pullen pulled up for a 3-pointer and Taylor blocked it, and Wisconsin came up with the ball, forcing Pullen to foul with 1.1 seconds left. Perhaps the longest 1.1 seconds of his life.
"There were a lot of plays and some costly turnovers in the last two minutes of the game that cost us the game," Pullen said.
Wisconsin scored the final points before Pullen heaved his 35-footer and stumbled to the sideline and covered his face in his jersey.
Pullen scored 38 points in the Wildcats' upset win over top-ranked Kansas on Valentine's Day. Little could he predict that the next time he scored so many points, he'd leave with a broken heart.
"It wasn't enough," he said. "At the end of the day, it wasn't enough. At the end of the day, we needed more points and more rebounds and it ended up costing us our season."
In the K-State locker room after the contest, Pullen still struggled with his thoughts -- his career, the records, all of it.
"I can't even focus on that right now," he said. "I won't ever play basketball in a Kansas State jersey again, and that's all I can focus on."
He was equally saddened over the teammates that he'll now leave behind.
"These are my brothers," he said. "All the things we went through and we pulled together and continued to fight. I couldn't be prouder of them."
Moments before, Pullen unsurprisingly revealed the competitor from within while sitting with Martin and fellow senior Curtis Kelly at the podium one final time.
"All the individual accolades and stuff I care nothing about," Pullen said. "I'll pass up on all of them. I'll be 100th in scoring if that would've got me to the Final Four. You know, that's all I wanted.
"I wanted a ring."
And with that, Pullen and Kelly left the stage, leaving Martin alone to share his thoughts.
K-State has experienced one of its most successful four-year runs in school history under Martin, going 21-12, 22-12, and 29-8 before finishing this season at 23-11. Postseason tournaments are no longer an anomaly for a program that once struggled to see the sunlight of March.
Martin relayed a story.
"When everyone in this room questioned me getting hired, he stayed true to his commitment and said, 'No, man, I'm coming to play for you,'" Martin said. "Four years later, we're in the NCAA (Tournament) three times, made an Elite Eight run. He's the scoring leader in the history of K-State. He's been to postseason all four years. Go back in the history books and see the last time K-State went to the postseason four straight years."
Then Martin paid Pullen perhaps his biggest compliment ever.
Martin said, "It's all because of him."