The Kansas Jayhawks don’t wear any green.
They don’t play on a parquet floor.
They don’t have a shamrock in their logo.
Yet, they really and truly are the Red Auerbach-era Boston Celtics of college basketball.
Monday night’s enthralling 109-106 triple-overtime victory over the Oklahoma Sooners, in the 40th 1-versus-2 game in college basketball history, proved as much.
If the old Boston Garden had leprechauns and ghosts — forces that made Larry Bird jump shots clang off the back of the rim but then fall straight through the net — Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, owns the same strange and creative energies which magically seem to give the Jayhawks just what they need when they absolutely have to have it.
How else to explain Kansas’ streak of 11 straight seasons with at least a share of the Big 12 regular season championship? How else to explain the difficulty of winning as a road team in the Phog? How else to explain the fortune Kansas finds in every Big 12 season… but then can’t cling to when it must leave its fabled gymnasium for the neutral courts of March?
If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a million times: A road team puts up a great fight and stands on the precipice of a season-changing victory in the Phog… only for Kansas to get the plot twists it needs to wiggle out of trouble.
The foremost example of this from Monday night’s Oklahoma-Kansas epic? Try this failure on the part of the official to give OU superstar Buddy Hield sufficient space with which to throw an inbounds pass inside the final 17 seconds of overtime, with the Sooners trailing by a single point:
Refs gonna act like he had enough room to inbound that ball? pic.twitter.com/A6CUNEBY27
— Meninist (@MeninistTweet) January 5, 2016
It’s true that Kansas defender Frank Mason was standing in bounds for almost all of that sequence above, but reaching the arms toward Hield’s body was and is a clear violation of the three feet of space an inbounder is entitled to. This was not a technical foul, but it was a delay of game warning, such that Hield should have been given a fresh attempt to inbound the ball (a new five-second count) with three feet of space. The failure to make this simple and obvious call certainly hurt the Sooners on Monday night. It robbed Hield of a chance to be a hero on a night when he scored 46 points and was clearly the best player on the floor.
Yet, as much as that call hurt Kansas, you can’t really say the Jayhawks didn’t deserve to win. You also can’t deny that Oklahoma had — and squandered — multiple chances to win. That’s the thing about these Phoggy escapes for KU: The Jayhawks might get a few timely breaks, but they’re the kinds of breaks which occur within the ebb and flow of basketball games and the dozens upon dozens of calls one can scrutinize throughout an evening. That Kansas earned what it got on Monday is part of the magic of its home building, where other Big 12 schools’ dreams go to die.
Oklahoma could have won this game at the end of regulation time, but Khadeem Lattin — given a chance to put his team ahead with under 2.5 seconds left — missed the front end of a one-and-one. OU led by two late in the third overtime, but Lattin traveled after pulling down a defensive rebound with 47 seconds left. These moments prevented the No. 2 Sooners from driving in the dagger and putting Kansas behind the 8-ball in terms of continuing its Big 12 title streak.
Such is always the case when a credentialed Big 12 visitor comes to Lawrence. Those final twists in the path always seem to steer the challenger wide of the mark. Kansas wobbles and wavers for much of an evening, but it clears through the Phog in the end and finds just enough inspiration to get the job done.
The foremost star of this game was Hield, who poured in 46 points by hitting over 50 percent of his shots not only from the field, but from three-point range. Yet, in classic Kansas fashion, the Jayhawks repeatedly foiled Hield when they had to, on make-or-break defensive sequences late in each overtime. This was never more apparent than when Kansas still trailed, 106-105, with 21 seconds left and OU in possession.
Frank Mason, who challenged Hield so well on defense in the second half and throughout each overtime period, was able to come up with a strip. This steal set up a run-out and a foul, giving Kansas two free throws which were converted for a 107-106 lead. The Jayhawks always absorb an opponent’s best punches at home, embodied by their late rally at the end of the third overtime. Kansas might have failed to win on final possessions at the end of the first and second overtimes, but when OU had the knife to KU’s throat, the home team called forth its MacGyver-like ability to find a solution, somehow.
It is a tale as old as time.
Oklahoma will need more from Lattin and Ryan Spangler, two big men whose offensive limitations often meant that the Sooners were playing 3-on-5 or 4-on-5 at the offensive end of the floor. It seemed that role players on both sides spent a lot of this game being bystanders, while Hield and an almost-as-great Perry Ellis of Kansas waged an epic overtime duel, a game-within-the-game which helped elevate the quality of this contest.
Kansas, for its part, watched Brannen Greene and Jamari Traylor turn into non-factors on Monday. As thrilled as Bill Self should in fact be after winning a 1-versus-2 game in his own conference, he — like OU boss Lon Kruger — knows he needs balanced contributions in order to make the Final Four. He didn’t get them on Monday, which will set the stage for the rest of the Big 12 season.
It’s a season still likely to be ruled by Kansas, after another unforgettable night in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, a place where home fans never leave sad, and visiting players never leave happy.
Death. Taxes. Rock Chalk Uber Alles.