ATLANTA — When the ball left his fingertips, Travis Releford said it felt good. He was standing near the wing, watching as the three-pointer floated toward the basket.
Kansas trailed Michigan State by three points in the final seconds of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, and the Jayhawks needed a bucket. So KU coach Bill Self had called an old favorite — the Jayhawks’ familiar “chop play” — where a guard takes a handoff on the wing and moves toward the top of the key.
“That’s worked a couple times in the past,” Self said.
In this instance, KU senior Elijah Johnson took the handoff before passing up a look at the top of the key. The second option was supposed to be Ben McLemore, but moments later, Releford found himself with the ball. He fired up a guarded three as the clocked ticked down. This time, the shot went wide and drew iron. And for the second straight year, the Jayhawks left the Champions Classic with a loss, falling 67-64 to Michigan State.
“It felt great,” Releford said. “It just didn’t go in. I also kind of rushed it.”
It would be easy to dwell on the final two minutes inside the Georgia Dome, where No. 7 Kansas watched No. 21 Michigan State make the game’s deciding plays and finish off a second-half comeback. But Self preferred to focus on the game’s final five minutes.
“Somebody’s gonna lose,” Self said. “And if you look at it, I thought we were pretty good for 35 minutes. I thought we actually played as good as I thought we were gonna play.…
“It’s just that, games are decided in the last five.”
Kansas had entered Tuesday with a long list of questions after a few uneven performances in two exhibition games and a season-opening win against Southeast Missouri State. This was a game against a ranked Michigan State team in front of a national audience, and the Jayhawks were about to go to battle with a handful of regulars that that had never experienced anything like a neutral-floor game against ranked team.
Kansas managed to stake a 35-32 halftime lead and push the lead to 59-54 with five minutes left after staying in semi-control for most of the second half. But Michigan State own the last five minutes. Spartans guard Keith Appling gave KU’s defense fits on ball screens, and after Appling drilled three-pointer with 1:36 left, Michigan State led 65-61.
“We did a great job defending all the way up until 10 seconds (on the shot clock),” Withey said, “and we just didn’t do a good job hedging (on screens).
“Whenever you get the shot clock all the way down to 10, for them to score after that, it’s kind of frustrating.”
Freshman Ben McLemore gave Kansas life with a hanging, three-point play with 50 seconds left. But Appling landed another blow on an acrobatic layup in the final seconds.
“I’m pretty good at going up and blocking stuff like that,” Withey said, “but he kind of did a little pump-fake.”
It’s worth noting that in nearly five months, college basketball will reconvene here in the Georgia Dome for the Final Four in early April. This Kansas team, of course, would like to believe it has the talent and experience to get back here. But for now, all that feels a long ways away.
Kansas finished with 16 turnovers and just eight assists. Johnson had a game-high 16 points — but needed 15 shots to get there. And Kansas’ freshmen, including forward Perry Ellis, appeared slightly overwhelmed by the atmosphere.
“Our freshman are gonna be good, but they’re pretty green and naïve,” Self said. “They’re not the typical heralded freshman that have had a lot of exposure and are worldly.”
In specific terms, Ellis will need to learn how to play against more physical teams. And McLemore, who had 14 points on seven shots, will have to learn how to assert himself more on offense.
KU’s seniors will have to continue to mature as well. That’s a given. And as Releford left the Georgia Dome on Tuesday night, he was left with that thought. Senior center Jeff Withey had eight points and four turnovers while playing through early foul trouble. And all of KU’s seniors, Releford said, should have made more plays in the final minutes.
“So, we can just blame ourselves, the upperclassmen,” Releford said, “because the underclassmen, they did all they could.”