NEW ORLEANS — He walked off the court with his chin raised. His cheeks were dry, and his face was blank.
This is how it ended for Tyshawn Taylor, and it wasn’t what he hoped for. Not what was possible and certainly not perfect. Kentucky was celebrating its 67-59 victory and the NCAA championship as Taylor and his Kansas teammates closed a season, an unexpected tournament run, and, yes, a few careers.
“As a senior,” the Jayhawks point guard said, “this is a bad feeling, because I don’t get a chance to make it up to these guys.”
For the past three months, Taylor became the face of what was possible for the Jayhawks. It didn’t matter who didn’t believe. They did. So when Taylor changed, so did his team. Gone was the immature player who injured a finger in an on-campus fight two years ago with KU football players, the player who was suspended for two exhibition games to start this season, the self-conscious youngster who in January lashed out on Twitter at critics.
“The more you talk,” coach Bill Self told reporters shortly after Taylor sent the late-night tweets, “the more you act like a little spoiled brat.”
Taylor became one of KU’s most polarizing players in years. Fans didn’t know what to make of him. He was so talented. Such speed and talent. But his turnovers and off-court behavior were beginning to define him. Speed is nice, but the downside is an increased chance of losing control. What if he would just ease off the gas for a while? What would be possible then?
So that’s what he did. The turnovers didn’t disappear, but he decreased them. He toned down his sensitivity to those criticizing him, or if he didn’t, he at least didn’t use Twitter to fight back. Self said Monday night that Taylor worked with his teammates, helping to coach and use what had become a vast knowledge of situations, planning and execution.
“He understands the game,” Self said.
With Taylor improving, KU tore through Big 12 play, completing the team’s eighth consecutive regular-season conference title. When he improved his self-control, it further highlighted what Taylor does so well. Things that other Jayhawks point guards couldn’t do, what other players simply watched and envied.
“He can make plays,” Self said, “you can’t coach.”
He made one against Kentucky, and that’s the thing: That was the play that was bothering Taylor after the loss like a pebble in his shoe. After KU trimmed what had long been a double-digit Wildcats lead, Taylor drove the baseline with 1:03 to play, past Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and toward the basket. Taylor switched shooting hands in the middle of the shot, but Kidd-Gilchrist adjusted, too, blocking the shot.
“Unbelievable play,” Taylor said. “I thought I had it.”
Taylor recovered the loose ball anyway, but his pass to Thomas Robinson was too wide. Another turnover, now with 54 seconds to play. Kentucky made enough foul shots to hold off the Jayhawks. Then the buzzer sounded.
“In a couple days,” Taylor said, “I might look back and say this was a great year; we had a great year, but right now it’s just a bad feeling. A bad feeling being so close, working so hard for four years to get to this one game, and we’re finally there and we just came up short.”
It’s difficult to know now how Taylor will be remembered. He was occasionally brilliant. He was occasionally a pain in coaches’ and fans’ rear ends. Self said he’ll remember him simply: As the most consistent and crisp guard that Self has had in nine seasons at KU — and the reason why this team made it this far.
Taylor’s play is what others had believed was once possible. That’s why it was so frustrating. And why his turnaround was so satisfying.
“He’s performed at a level that I thought he possibly could,” Self said. “But he’s probably even surpassed what I thought. He’s been that good.”
Yes, it ended for Taylor on a Monday night in New Orleans. When he, Robinson and Self walked out of the locker room, Taylor’s chin was still raised. His cheeks were still dry, but they probably hadn’t been a few minutes earlier. His eyes were red.
“I think I speak for all my teammates and the coaches, that this is going to hurt for a while,” he said. “But like I said, when we look back on this, we’re going to feel OK about it.”
Maybe that’s how they’ll remember Taylor, too: not perfect, but anything but forgettable.