CHICAGO (AP) - Never mind all those familiar faces in the crowd, Jacob Pullen kept insisting this was just like every other road game.
Well, he did acknowledge one thing: This one meant a little more.
Pullen scored 19 points in a triumphant homecoming, and No. 5 Kansas State hung on to beat Loyola of Chicago 68-60 on Saturday.
The win was the fifth straight for the Wildcats (9-1), whose only loss was to No. 1 Duke.
In this one, they were out of synch in the first half and nearly blew a 14-point lead in the second - barely escaping against a team that hasn't beaten a top-five opponent in 26 years.
It wasn't an easy day for Pullen, a senior from nearby Maywood, Ill. His mom works as a database manager at Loyola, and with a large group of family and friends watching, he shot just 5 of 17 but pulled down nine rebounds in his only college appearance in Chicago.
``This whole week, he was overburdened with just friends and family - whether it be tickets or they want to see him, do this or do that,' coach Frank Martin said. ``I had to kind of leave him alone because he had enough in his face this week. I'm happy that we scheduled this game, and I credit Loyola's administration and coach because it gave us an opportunity to bring somebody that's meant so much for our program back home.'
Pullen was adamant he was not overwhelmed by it all, saying basketball is ``the only thing' that doesn't make him nervous.
``Tests, all that other stuff, make me nervous, but I'll be all right with basketball,' he said.
Even so, this was a special day for him. He had ``over 100' family and friends in the stands, people ``that had seen you growing up.'
``It was a great experience,' he said. ``The opportunity to be in the middle of the game and see some people that might have just done little things for you going through your lifetime, whether it was a sophomore coach in high school or a friend that played little league with you ... it meant a lot to me. It was a great thing that Frank was able to do, setting up a home-and-home with Loyola.'
Martavious Irving scored 12 points and Curtis Kelly added 10 for the Wildcats, who won despite going 21 of 35 at the foul line and being outrebounded 45-38.
``We walked into exactly what I thought,' Martin said. ``Watching them on tape, I thought they were a real good basketball team. I tried to prepare our guys, made them understand that we know how good (Horizon League members) Butler and Cleveland State are from competing against them. We couldn't assume the Loyola team that we played against us early last year was the same one we were playing this time.'
Kansas State blew out the Ramblers last season. No such luck this time.
Ben Averkamp scored 17 for Loyola (8-3), which last beat a top-five team with a one-point win over then-No. 4 Illinois on Dec. 22, 1984. The Ramblers nearly pulled this one out even though they were a miserable 20 of 64 from the field and 4 for 19 from 3-point range.
``Defensively, we played well enough to win,' coach Jim Whitesell said. ``We certainly rebounded well enough to win. And they missed enough free throws for us to win.'
Loyola hung in when the Wildcats looked as though they were ready to pull away in the second half. Kansas State scored seven straight points capped by a 3-pointer from the right corner by Nick Russell that made it 44-32 just under eight minutes into the half, and it was 50-36 after Pullen nailed a jumper with 8:34 left.
The Wildcats couldn't put this one away, though.
They were leading 56-46 with about five minutes left when Loyola stormed back with seven straight points, a 3 by Averkamp starting that run and a jumper by Geoff McCammon with 3:36 remaining capping it. It stayed close right to the end.
Pullen, however, hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 29 seconds, helping preserve the win for Kansas State on a day when he again struggled with his shot.
``He's just not shooting the ball well, but I don't ever want to take the credit away from Loyola,' Martin said.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved