LAWRENCE — Midway through the first half, with Kansas on the verge of burying American under an onslaught of perimeter shots, Naadir Tharpe found himself gliding toward the basket.
For parts of two seasons, Tharpe, a reserve sophomore guard, had been waiting to be in this position. Leading a fastbreak. Making plays. Dishing off to Kansas’ bevy of big-man options.
So here he was, and Tharpe figured he’d dump the ball off to Travis Releford. But for some reason, the timing was off… and Tharpe took off for the goal, looking for a foul.
Maybe last season, Tharpe would have lost his head and forced a bad pass. Maybe committed a turnover. But on Saturday night inside Allen Fieldhouse, Tharpe was right on time, flipping the ball back to senior Jeff Withey for a monster jam.
“Luckily,” Tharpe said, “he was there.”
In this moment, Kansas was in the midst of a 16-2 run, a first-half blitz that would eventually turn into an 89-57 drubbing of American, an overmatched school from the Patriot League.
And Tharpe, the guard known simply as “Na” to his teammates, was in the middle of the best night of his career, posting a stat line that included nine points, 12 assists and zero turnovers in 20 minutes.
“Everybody I’ve seen play here,” Tharpe said, “nobody just comes in and is just automatically the superstar.”
For weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self has talked about what a productive Tharpe could do for the point-guard-challenged Jayhawks. For one, Tharpe can add some important insurance as the first guard off the bench. But even more, a reliable Tharpe means starter Elijah Johnson will be able to stay fresh during the Big 12 Conference grind.
So maybe Tharpe was inspired by former KU great Aaron Miles, the Jayhawks’ all-time assists leader. Miles had spent Friday in Lawrence, watching KU practice. On Saturday, he sat right behind KU’s bench.
“He probably hit me with a little bit of his assists,” Tharpe said.
Or maybe, as Self has seen the last few weeks, a light is just finally flicking on.
“I’d say ever since our team started playing well, you could probably look back and say he’s a big reason why,” Self said. “When we were laboring, and basically up until the Colorado game, I don’t think Naadir had played very well.”
Tharpe’s added production was one reason the Jayhawks’ top six players finished with 23 assists and two turnovers. And he certainly had a little something to with KU shooting 15 of 24 from three-point range.
Those long-distance numbers were at a near-record pace. And they would have been historic — had freshman walk-on Tyler Self not air-mailed his only three-point attempt in the final minutes.
“We we’re gonna call an attorney and see about a name change, maybe,” Bill Self said, smiling. “But his mother said she still loved him, so I guess that’ll probably pass.”
If Tyler Self’s three-pointer had gone down, KU would have tied the all-time record for most threes in a game. (KU hit 16 against Baylor in 2005). Instead, the Jayhawks settled for a career night from Travis Releford (5 of 6 from three-point range) and a bounce-back game from Elijah Johnson (4 of 5).
Releford’s shooting display came after his teammates had spent the week badgering him about passing up open shots.
“During the game, I don’t think about it,” Releford said. “But after the game, they all come to me, like, ‘Trav, man, I need that assist. You’re a good shooter. Just shoot it.’ ”
Kansas shot the ball so well that Releford said nobody really noticed when leading scorer Ben McLemore went to the bench with two fouls in the first half. Of course, maybe that was a little bit because the fans inside Allen Fieldhouse were busy catching a glimpse of comedian Jason Sudeikis, an Overland Park native and high-profile KU fan, and his longtime girlfriend, Olivia Wilde.
They, too, were sitting behind the Kansas bench.
By late in the second half, Sudeikis was shown on the scoreboard reading Bill Self’s biography, and that was a pretty apt symbol of the night in Lawrence. American brought scrap and grit. The Jayhawks brought future pros. And Tharpe and the pros won out.
“Everybody was knocking down shots today,” Tharpe said, “and everybody seemed like they were in tune. And that was the outcome of the game.”