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March 13, 2010

In-state rivals to battle for tourney title

After a pair of hard-fought regular-season contests, Kansas and Kansas State meet again on what could be one of the biggest stages in the history the Sunflower Showdown.

Trying for a seventh Big 12 tournament title, the top-seeded and No. 1 Jayhawks look for a sixth consecutive win over the second-seeded and ninth-ranked Wildcats in Saturday's title game.

While Kansas (31-2) has dominated the series in recent years - 32-2 since the conception of the Big 12 in 1996-97 - this season has told a different story. Though the Jayhawks won both meetings, they've had to work hard against a Wildcat squad that just set the school record for wins in a season and gets another shot at an upset.

"That's our goal right now," said Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, who's averaging a team-leading 19.1 points. "We have the opportunity in front of us."

In front of a raucous crowd in Manhattan on Jan. 20, the then-No. 2 Jayhawks needed overtime to beat the Wildcats 81-79. Kansas then shot 51.0 percent and clinched the Big 12 regular-season crown with an 82-65 home win over Kansas State (26-6) on March 3.

Though Kansas' six Big 12 tournament titles are a league record, Kansas State is making its first trip to the finals. This is the first time the schools will face each other for a league tournament title since meeting in the 1981 Big Eight final, won 80-68 by the Jayhawks.

With this contest being played in nearby Kansas City, Mo., it has the makings of a special evening.

"I've got to think that it's going to be the best environment of any conference championship game in the country," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. "I just hope we play well, because if not, it might be a long day against those guys."

Martin hopes his team has enough energy to handle the Jayhawks after outlasting No. 21 Baylor 82-75 in a semifinal Friday. Pullen had 26 points and backcourt mate Denis Clemente added 24 with seven assists as the Wildcats overcame a 54-percent shooting effort from the third-seeded Bears, who also committed 18 turnovers.

"I'm just extremely proud of them," Martin said of his team that lost its final two regular season games. "I just hope we've got some gas left in the tank to try and compete with the best in the country."

Martin will likely need another big night from his backcourt. Pullen is averaging 21.3 points and Clemente 20.0 in the last three games against Kansas.

"Pullen and Clemente, they're as good offensively as any guards in the league, period," said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team is in position to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Sherron Collins had 26 points and freshman Xavier Henry added 15 as the Jayhawks overcame 18 turnovers and used a 21-2 second-half run to rally for a 79-66 win over No. 23 Texas A&M on Friday.

"I do think in games like this you can really learn and grow from it, because we're going to be behind again," Self said after recording his 200th win at Kansas. "And guys have to step up and make plays."

The All-American Collins is averaging 22.5 points on 51.9 percent shooting in the tournament. Henry, meanwhile, had 19 against the Wildcats last week.

Kansas State's last victory in the series came at home on Jan. 30, 2008.



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