"This should be on ESPN Classic -- tonight," said Kansas State sophomore forward Jamar Samuels in the locker room afterward. Just don't ask him to stay up to watch it. "The first thing I'm going to do when I get back to the hotel is go to bed."
Denis Clemente, who played 48 minutes and scored 21 of his 25 points after the first half, including the final two free throws to seal the 101-96 victory, stood with a 7-pack of sports drinks dangling from his right hand and a bottle of water clutched in his left. "It's my senior year, it's my final tournament," he said.. "If I have to score 30 to win, I'll score 30."
He didn't have to go that far. "Every time we thought the game was over with, we were walking to the line, you could see it in their eyes, they didn't want their season to end either," said Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, who led the Wildcats with 28 points.
If you couldn't read it in their eyes, you could read it in the box score: 13 ties, 17 lead changes, 58 free throws attempted and 41 made, 91 rebounds gathered. The quartet of starting guards, Crawford and Terrell Holloway of Xavier and Clemente and Pullen of Kansas State, combined for a stunning 111 points.
"It was by far the best game I've ever played," said Samuels, who had 14 points and five rebounds. "Shot by shot. No one would let up."
Xavier coach Chris Mack would compare the game to Ali-Foreman and called it "as good a game as I've coached in."
No one could have seen such a historic battle forming in the first eight minutes of the game, when Kansas State jumped to a 19-4 lead. But Kansas State started fouling, allowing Xavier to get to the line and claw back. The Musketeers took their first lead with 48 seconds to go in the first half. In the second half neither team could build more than a six-point cushion. With 10 seconds left in regulation, Pullen hit two free throws to put K-State up 72-69. "I thought, 'That's the game. That's the nail in the coffin,' " he said.
Then things got interesting. K-State's Chris Merriewether fouled Holloway as he was launching a three, sending him to the line for the three free throws that would send the game into overtime.
A stunning 30-foot three by Xavier's Crawford, who had a career-high 32 points, sent the game into its second overtime. As one end-game bled into another, the players started pleading with those on the other team: "Please miss this one: we just want this to end!" But neither team wanted to go home.
"I expected this to be a hard-fought game," said Kansas State coach Frank Martin. "I didn't expect it to be like this. They were phenomenal and our guys were pretty good, too."
His guys were pretty good in a way the coaching staff hadn't seen before, which bodes well for the Wildcats, fatigued as they might be, as they face Butler, the upset winner over Syracuse, on Saturday. "It wasn't our best game, but we showed a lot of resilience," said Kansas state assistant Brad Underwood. "Finally, tonight I think we took on the character of our head coach. They could have hung their head when Crawford hit a shot or Merriewether fouled, but we had tremendous resiliency to fight back. That's what Frank Martin has done his whole life. I think we've finally taken on his identity and his personality. And that can only be a good thing going forward."