Just how did Kansas stay alive in the NCAA Tournament?
Several statistics said the Jayhawks’ 63-60 triumph over Purdue on Sunday shouldn’t have happened.
KU shot 33.9 percent from the field, attempting 62 shots and hitting 21. Never had a Bill Self-coached Kansas team shot as poorly and won.
Its top two players, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, combined to go six of 23 from the field, and for most of the game, the Jayhawks had no answer for Robbie Hummel, who had 22 points in the first half and finished with 26.
But in a game Kansas led for a grand total of 45 seconds, the Jayhawks made enough plays to eke out a victory and send the Jayhawks to Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal against North Carolina State in St. Louis.
The question is: Was this the Jayhawks’ 2008 Davidson game, the narrow escape in otherwise clear sailing to the Final Four? Or did the Boilermakers expose flaws that could bring down KU in any round?
KU coach Bill Self suggests the former.
“Hopefully this was that game,” Self said. “We shot 34 percent. That’s unheard of.”
Not the shooting, but the winning with such marksmanship. It hadn’t been since 1997 that the Jayhawks shot so poorly in a victory.
They also connected on a mere 25 percent of their three-pointers (six of 24) and 65.2 percent of free throws (15 of 23).
But, it turned out, Kansas controlled the game’s final 3 minutes, and that was enough.
Beyond Elijah Johnson’s obvious huge plays — a three-pointer, a lob-pass assist for a slam and a steal and breakaway basket for the go-ahead points — Kansas was at its best when it mattered most.
Robinson couldn’t buy a basket, but his block of Lewis Jackson’s drive set up the possession that Johnson finished with his deep three.
And after Johnson’s lob to Taylor for a slam, Self burned his final timeout. It seemed risky. KU trailed 60-59 with a minute remaining. What could be gained here?
“It was a roll of the dice,” Self said. “I thought we were tired. I wanted to make sure we had fresh legs. It seems like, knowing our team, if we can look at each other in a timeout and say, ‘This is what we have to do,’ we have a better chance of doing it.”
Kansas had to get a stop, and the Jayhawks got even more. Purdue’s Jackson dribbled without making much progress and got trapped near the free-throw line. Johnson poked the ball away and went end-to-end with the game-winning layup.
“They clamped down right there,” Jackson said. “(Johnson) got a hand on the ball, and it was a good steal.”
Kansas was battling a motivated Hummel, the senior standout who was playing in his first NCAA Tournament since his freshman year because of two season-ending knee surgeries. And Hummel nearly delivered.
North Carolina State also is playing inspired basketball. The Wolfpack went 15-16 last season and fired coach Sidney Lowe, a hero from the 1983 national championship team. In came Mark Gottfried, two years removed from coaching at Alabama.
The school took plenty of grief from national pundits for the hire. How would N.C. State keep up with the likes of neighboring North Carolina and Duke with a coach who resigned his last job at midseason and had missed the NCAA Tournament in the previous two?
The Wolfpack found a way. It’s a defensive-minded team that is 17-2 when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points.
But the Jayhawks lived to play another game.
“I’ve been around long enough that usually teams that have great success in the tournament, they figure out to win a game when they don’t play their best,” Self said.