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Pullen's homecoming a bittersweet one

CHICAGO – Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen told his mother Charlotte his only request during his return trip home to Chicago on Saturday was he wanted to see his grandparents.

As long as his grandparents had a comfortable seat and could see him play against Loyola at the Gentile Center, Pullen was fine with whomever else wanted to attend and whatever his mother had planned for him during his few days at home.

As Pullen explained earlier in the week, his grandparents have been there for him throughout his life. This game was for them as much it was for him.

They’re the ones who hang posters of him in their homes, can’t be disturbed whenever he’s playing on TV and love him no matter how he performs.

His grandparents couldn’t wait to see him play as well. With Pullen having chosen to attend Kansas State, there have been few opportunities to witness him play anywhere near Chicago. The last time he played locally, in fact, was as a senior at Proviso East High School in Maywood.

When Pullen finally did step on the court Saturday afternoon and officially made his Chicago homecoming, more than a hundred of his family members and friends rose from their seats and began clapping and yelling in support.

Pullen loved seeing everyone. There were old coaches, friends, aunts and uncles, cousins and so many more. But despite seeing all of the familiar faces and being welcomed home so warmly, Pullen couldn’t help, but feel some sadness.

There was one person missing, and it was one of the only four he really cared to be there.

Shortly after Pullen arrived to town this week, his grandfather Charlie Williams began having trouble breathing and had to be taken to hospital. Pullen visited with him for most of Friday, and Williams has since improved, but he had to remain in the hospital Saturday and wasn’t able to Kansas State’s 68-60 win over Loyola.

“It was good to see him when I was able to go there all day yesterday, but it’s still tough because he really wanted to come to the game,” Pullen said. “He had been talking about it all week. It was a tough situation.”

Pullen scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds against Loyola, but overall his performance was below his usual standards.

He shot 5 of 17 from the field and 0 for 4 from 3-point range and made a few careless turnovers.

Pullen didn’t want to use his grandfather’s absence as an excuse for his play, but he admitted the situation had been difficult on him.

“You think about stuff like that, but at the same time, you got to focus on other stuff,” Pullen said. “It is tough with my grandfather being in the hospital. It was ironic he went to the hospital the weekend I got home. It kind of hurt for a while, but now that I know he’s doing okay … Hopefully, I’ll go to see him tonight.”

Despite all the distractions for Pullen, Kansas State coach Frank Martin saw someone who wanted to win more than anyone else on the floor, and, most importantly, Pullen came through when the game mattered.

After Loyola pulled within 61-57 with 1:21 remaining, Kansas State’s Curtis Kelly was fouled and went to the line. Kelly missed both free throws and just as Loyola’s fan began to consider if an upset was really possible, Pullen swooped in and recovered the offensive rebound. The Wildcats would score two points on the possession, and the game was never closer than five points the rest of the way.

“I don’t care if the ball went into the basket or not, that’s a guy who is playing to win,” Martin said. “He’s the only guy in the huddle as I challenged the team during the course of the game because we’re getting out-rebounded. As a coach, you have your thumb on this. You see it coming. I’m telling our team in the huddle, ‘Is someone going to be a man, box out and go get a ball?’

“The only one that responded every single time was him. He kept on telling me, ‘I got you. I got the next one. I got the next one.’ You know what? Bless his heart, he went out and got the most important one at the end of the game.”

Although Charlie Williams couldn’t be there in person, Pullen was sure to have made his grandfather proud once again.