No, not the wrestling show, although I hear the John Cena-C.M. Punk match was terrific tonight. I have it recorded.
I’m talking about the Kansas Jayhawks, who for the second week in a row took their fan base through an emotional mine field on the way to a 108-96 overtime win over Iowa State inside Hilton Coliseum that left nerves raw.
It was a game marred by some late-game officiating lapses, but highlighted – then low-lighted – by KU senior guard Elijah Johnson, who was spectacular with a 39-point performance while making every clutch play down the stretch. Take away his charging foul late in regulation that wasn’t called and the point-of-emphasis dunk in the final seconds that he later apologized for, and Johnson was almost perfect.
Kansas has regained its toughness in the past couple of Monday nights with overtime wins at Oklahoma State and Iowa State, two of the most difficult places to play in the Big 12. The Jayhawks were down and out Monday before Johnson took over the game. He made 13 of 22 shots, 6 of 10 three-pointers and all seven of his free throws including two to send the game into overtime. He had seven assists and five rebounds.
The most-maligned Kansas player of the season had a game for the ages.
Iowa State is different from almost every other college basketball team. The Cyclones aren’t quite to the Loyola-Marymount level from the 1990s under Paul Westhead, but ISU coach Fred Hoiberg employs a unique offensive style that is heavily reliant on three-point shots.
Just when you thought the Cyclones wouldn’t dare foist up more than 38 three-pointers, which is how many they put up during a 97-89 OT loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence this season, they fired 41 three-points Monday night. And made a team-record 17.
It was an incredible display of shooting and one that would have buried most visitors.
KU, though, has regained its mental edge. It looked like Bill Self was on the verge of losing his team when the Jayhawks lost to a bad TCU team earlier this month. Instead, it looks more like Kansas has found something since that terrible defeat.
For one thing, the Jayhawks smell blood. Winning a ninth consecutive Big 12 championship is a big, big deal to Self and his team, and a loss to Iowa State would have put KU a game behind rival Kansas State with only three conference games remaining. The Jayhawks’ streak of Big 12 titles is going to end someday, but they sure don’t want it to be at the hands of K-State.
But let’s be real here. The officials were a pretty good sixth man for Kansas late. First, there was a reaching foul by Jeff Withey that was called against teammate Kevin Young. Now Young did a fantastic job of raising his hand immediately after the whistle, because a foul on Withey would have been his fifth. And referee Mark Whitehead went for Young’s guilty plea, which meant Withey got to stay in the game for the 23 seconds remaining in regulation and the first 3:29 of overtime, after which he finally did get called for his fifth foul.
And in the final five seconds of regulation, Johnson went like a bullet into the lane, hoping to get to the rim and score with KU trailing by two, 90-88. He crashed into Iowa State freshman Georges Niang, who looked to have good position. Nothing was called, though. But in a chase for the loose ball, Niang was called for a reaching foul and Johnson went to the line and made two clutch free throws.
Kansas was fortunate. And in overtime, the Jayhawks were able to seal the deal behind Johnson, who has been so bad at times this season that Self has considered cutting back his playing time. Only one problem – KU has such little depth in the backcourt that limiting Johnson’s minutes was never really an option.
Johnson played 37 fantastic minutes Monday night. Now Kansas, with home games remaining against West Virginia and Texas Tech and a road game to cap the regular season at Baylor, is in good shape for that ninth consecutive Big 12 championship. It’s one of the most amazing streaks in sports.