SALT LAKE CITY -- We might see a better team over the next 10 days, but we won't see a better game. Definitely not in the 2010 NCAA tournament. Another game this season, better than Kansas State and Xavier gave us? No way. You're not that lucky. Neither am I.
But we'll always have Thursday night, when second-seeded Kansas State beat No. 6 seed Xavier 101-96 in a game that will be remembered -- as far down the road as decades from now, and as immediately as this moment -- as one of the best games in the history of the Sweet 16.
"March basketball at its finest," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.
Xavier's Chris Mack compared it to a triple-overtime battle between North Carolina and Wake Forest when he was an assistant with the Deacons, but then decided that wasn't good enough.
"The stakes weren't as high," Mack said, so he searched for another analogy. He came up with a good one.
"I felt like tonight was eerily similar to Ali-Foreman," he said of the 1974 heavyweight title bout. "And they landed the last punch, unfortunately."
Someone had to. This game couldn't last forever, though I wouldn't have minded. The postgame handshake line was as slow as any I can remember, and not just because both teams were exhausted. Though they were. They were bone tired from the game-long drama and tension, not to mention the two overtimes.
|Boards: College hoops | Kansas State | Xavier|
The handshake line was long also because the players had to linger, Kansas State and Xavier, and share this final moment. They had just shared something most college basketball teams will never share, and they knew it. Handshakes became hugs, and hugs became a few words of real talk, not the typically empty, vacant-eyed nothingness that happens in the handshake line.
These are two programs that haven't liked each other. Their acrimony dates to three years ago, when Xavier beat Kansas State badly, 103-77, then celebrated a little too loudly, as far as the KSU players were concerned. When Kansas State returned the favor earlier this season, smacking Xavier 71-56 in Manhattan, Kan., the Wildcats celebrated by going into the crowd and high-fiving students. And that didn't sit well with Xavier.
Officials knew what might happen, which is why they hastily called a double-technical foul early in the game, on KSU guard Denis Clemente and Xavier's Mark Lyons. That was the warning to both dugouts: No more of this. And the teams kept it clean the rest of the way, even as the drama thickened, even after Xavier's Dante Jackson sent Clemente flying to the floor on a screen. Kansas State center Curtis Kelly hustled over, and as Jackson walked past, Kelly jutted out his chest, giving Jackson a bump and sending the same message officials had sent earlier with the double-technical: No more of that.
The game stayed clean, and thank goodness for that. Nothing should tarnish something like this, something crazy and wonderful like Kansas State's Jacob Pullen scoring five points in the last 24 seconds of regulation to put the Wildcats in control, only to have Xavier's Terrell Holloway make three free throws with five seconds left to force overtime. And like Xavier's Jordan Crawford burying a majestic 3-pointer from well beyond NBA length with four seconds left to force the second extra session. And like Pullen and Clemente doing what they have done all year, making it happen when it matters most, scoring the last 10 points for Kansas State as a 93-91 deficit in the final period became the eventual 101-96 final score.
|Xavier's Jason Love needs to be consoled after the emotionally draining game. (AP)|
Whatever they say. Thirty-two feet? Halfcourt? Sure. OK. I'll buy it.
I'll also buy some postgame quotes. Normally I'm not big on these things. Players say what they've heard other players say, in other situations. You hear one postgame quote, you've heard them all. Only, I've not heard quotes like these, gracious quotes, quotes that made the losing team sound like winners.
"I was just watching Xavier come back, and come back, and come back, and I was thinking, 'Those guys ... they don't want to lose,'" Kelly said. "And let me tell you, I understood how they felt."
Pullen did plenty of talking to Xavier during the game, talking and listening both, but afterward he wasn't about to gloat. Not at the expense of Xavier. Not after the game he just saw the Musketeers play.
"Every time we thought the game was over with, you could see it in their eyes," Pullen said. "They didn't want their season to end."
Damn near everyone was heroic, or as heroic as young men can be in a game of basketball. Holloway hit those three free throws at the end of regulation and hit two more in overtime and finished with a season-high 26 points. Crawford hit that ridiculous 3-pointer in overtime and then scored six straight Xavier points in the second OT, including a hanging, double-pumping, hanging, triple-pumping shot that you just don't see outside an NBA arena, which of course Energy Solutions Arena is. Crawford finished with a career-high 32 points. Xavier center Jason Love had 11 points and 15 rebounds and walked off crying tears of exhaustion as Mack rubbed the back of his head. Brad Redford hit two late 3's to keep Xavier within range. And on and on. And those guys played for the losing team.
Kansas State's heroes? All of them. Everybody. Pullen quietly scored 28, including eight in the second OT. Clemente very loudly scored 25, making a mockery of Xavier's man-to-man defense. Kelly had 21 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and four assists. Jamar Samuels had 14 points and five rebounds, and went to the foul line repeatedly in overtime.
"It was as good a game as I've played, coached, been a part of," Mack said. "Both teams believed they were going to win. Unfortunately, only one team is allowed to."
Damn shame. Both deserved it.