LAWRENCE — The ball was hanging in the passing lane, just beyond his fingertips. Ben McLemore could see the play happening in front of him, and he began to jump toward the ball.
It was Sunday afternoon, and the Temple Owls had come into Allen Fieldhouse and pushed No. 6 Kansas around for most of the day. Now the Jayhawks were on the ropes, trailing by one point with 2:45 to play. They’d win 69-62, but in 37 minutes of basketball, KU hadn’t recorded one steal.
“My mindset was just get stops,” McLemore said.
In most cases, maybe it wouldn’t be up to a freshman to stalk the passing lane with the game on the line. But McLemore could see it. Temple was trying to get the ball to leading scorer Khalif Wyatt on the wing. And when the ball was in the air, McLemore took a chance.
In what seemed like an instant, McLemore came up with a game-changing steal and converted a transition dunk on the other end. The Jayhawks finally had their lead. The fieldhouse began to shake. And McLemore couldn’t hear himself think.
“It’s a good thing I know how to read lips,” McLemore said. “… It was just crazy.”
Maybe Kansas needed this. Maybe it needed an opponent to come into the fieldhouse and bring a little attitude. Maybe they needed to be tested.
If that’s what this was, a genuine test, the Jayhawks passed it in the final minutes of a game that felt like March.
“That’s a tournament game right there,” senior guard Travis Releford said.
“It comes down to the last four minutes,” said senior center Jeff Withey, who finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks.
“To have great seasons, you gotta (win) games where maybe you don’t play as well,” KU coach Bill Self said.
On Sunday, the dagger came in the final minute on a three-pointer from Releford, who had spent a bulk of the second half on the bench in foul trouble. The shot gave Kansas a seven-point lead with 37 seconds left. But the game was really won in a hard-fought final stretch that included clutch free throws from Kevin Young, big-time blocks from Withey, and, of course, the timely steal from McLemore.
“I definitely was reading it,” McLemore said. “Because I knew they wanted to try to give him the ball.”
The steal gave KU its first lead in more than five minutes. In the ensuing possessions, Young made four straight free throws and Withey came up with a huge block on the defensive end as the lead stretched to 62-58 with a minute to play.
Next came Releford’s three-pointer. And an emotional exhale from the 16,300. For a month, the Jayhawks had played beautiful basketball, leaving a wake of overmatched teams. On Sunday, they had to be tough. And they were, especially when it counted.
“We played at a fairly high level the last month, and I kind of thought we were due a game like this,” Self said.
A game like this meant playing a Temple squad that had already upset then-No. 3 Syracuse in December; a Temple squad that took a four-point lead late on Sunday as Wyatt, a senior guard, went off for 26 points and Releford went to the bench with four fouls with more than 15 minutes left in the game.
Self said he’d gotten on Releford at halftime. And when Releford opened the second half by picking up his third foul, he wanted to give him a chance to play through it. The plan backfired. But by the time Releford returned to the game, the Jayhawks were ready to make their move.
“One thing about Travis,” Self said, “Gosh, was he good down the stretch.”
The Jayhawks, who will open Big 12 play on Wednesday at home against Iowa State, finished out their non-conference slate with a 12-1 record. But after McLemore went clutch — and the Jayhawks grinded out a March-style victory — the Jayhawks could breathe easier. They needed to make plays down the stretch to survive, and they had — once again.
“When it get to that time in the game, you’re not tired no more,” Johnson said. “You don’t feel that. And that was the fun part. To just know that I wasn’t even tired out there.”