TUCSON, Ariz. – Utah State wouldn't go away, hitting what seemed to be one improbable shot after another. Kansas State helped the Aggies along with a succession of mistakes that had coach Frank Martin fuming.
The Wildcats managed to pull it out, of all places, from the free throw line.
Jacob Pullen had a big game after an illness kept him out of practice the day before and fifth-seeded Kansas State held off Utah State 73-68 Thursday by making its free throws down the stretch, sending the Aggies to their seventh straight opening loss in the NCAA tournament.
A 64 percent foul-shooting team during the regular season, Kansas State (23-10) made 11 of 14 from the line in the final 1:08 and 24 of 28 overall to move into the third round of the Southeast region against Wisconsin on Saturday.
"It was just understanding that our last game of the season could come if we don't shoot the ball well from the free throw line," said Pullen, who made 6 of 8 free throws in the final stretch. "It's about focusing and I think we did a good job of that."
Kansas State seemed to be in control coming out of halftime, leading by 11 after Pullen scored 10 points despite missing practice on Wednesday due to a fever.
The Wildcats had been good at closing teams out since a risky-but-effect midseason adjustment by Martin, but reverted back to their old ways in the second half, stringing together miscues at both ends while Utah State (30-4) hit a series of big shots to climb back in it.
Kansas State eventually pulled out the victory, but made it a lot harder than it needed to be.
"Obviously, happy with the win, but fortunate to have gotten one," Martin said. "I'm real proud of the way we played in the first half, but after our season and all of our growth, a little disappointing that we reverted in the second half to the mistakes we made early in the year. This time of season, you win, you get a chance to win and hopefully we can refocus."
Utah State had something to do with it.
Despite a so-so first half that left them in what seemed like an insurmountable hole, the Aggies kept fighting their way back, scoring 14 points in the final minute to force K-State into making its free throws.
Tai Wesley overcame early foul trouble to score 18 points, Brockeith Pane added 17 and Pooh Williams 16 in what was a gritty-but-disappointing finish to a superb season at Utah State.
"I'm extremely proud of that group and what they accomplish and how they handled themselves and represented the university," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "You are talking about a lot of guys that are going to go out into the world and be successful and very solid citizens."
Utah State came into the tournament on a roll and looking for a win.
The Aggies have been regulars in the NCAA tournament, getting in eight of 12 years, including three straight. They just haven't done much once they've gotten there, bounced after one game in their six previous trips, 14 of 15 since 1971.
Utah State, despite getting a lower seed than expected, hoped this would be the year it ended the streak, get out of that reintroduce-yourself-every-year mode and become one of those mid-majors everyone knows about.
Tenacious and disciplined, the Aggies had their best season ever behind six seniors, rolling through the WAC regular season and tournament to set a school record for wins.
But, like all those other NCAA tournament berths before — thanks to high seedings — Utah State faced a team that presents matchup problems.
Long, athletic and full of in-the-jersey defenders, Kansas State is unlike anything the Aggies see in the WAC.
And this game was going to be a head-butting of strengths: Kansas State's swarming D against Utah State's patient offense.
The Wildcats' goal was to disrupt the Aggies' offensive sets, not let them get to the spots they want on the floor or get the ball into Wesley in the post.
K-State did just that in the first half, making every shot a chore for the Aggies, even the ones that went in. Wesley was almost nonexistent, limited to two points and three shots due to foul trouble.
"I started off bad. I had a couple of turnovers and I got my first shot blocked and they were giving me a little bit of trouble in the post," Wesley said. "Then I picked up a couple of dumb fouls and I was really frustrated I think and flustered. The second half was a little different."
It sure was.
Wesley helped the Aggies keep K-State in sight by getting to the rim, scoring eight quick points. The Aggies, who trailed by as much as 14, kept hanging around and made one last push, pulling within 56-50 when K-State's Rodney McGruder was called for an intentional foul on Pane — Brady Jardine hit the free throws when Pane hurt his arm — and Williams threw down a dunk.
Wesley and Pane kept hitting shots and Kansas State kept making mistakes, but Utah State couldn't get any closer. The Wildcats made sure of that, answering everything Utah State threw at them down the stretch by hitting from the line.
"It's about winning and us continuing to have a season right now," Pullen said.
They do, thanks to making their free throws.