LAWRENCE — Elijah Johnson was curling with the ball, desperately searching for an out, anything to save Kansas from the stain of a loss in its Big 12 opener against Iowa State.
The Jayhawks trailed the Cyclones by three points as the clocked ticked under five seconds. They needed a three-pointer to extend the game, to avoid being the first Kansas team to lose its conference opener since 1991 — to avoid just the second loss at Allen Fieldhouse in the last 101 games.
On the other side of the court, freshman Ben McLemore was just focused on one thing. Nearly two months ago, in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Jayhawks had been in this same situation against Michigan State. In both games, the Jayhawks called the play “Chop” — the play made most famous by Mario Chalmers’ denouement miracle against Memphis in the NCAA Championship game against Memphis in 2008.
In both games this season, the Jayhawks had looked for McLemore. But when the time came against Michigan State, he misread a defender and floated toward the wrong area.
“I was thinking about the mistake I did last time against Michigan State,” McLemore would say.
This time, McLemore was poised and calm. He had already scored 25 points, carrying the Jayhawks in the final stretches, helping them erase a six-point deficit with four minutes left. And as Johnson curled toward the top of the key, McLemore read the defense perfectly and cut open off a screen from Travis Releford.
“He deserved that shot,” Johnson said.
When the ball went in the air, Releford and Johnson turned to watch. The ball hit glass first, banking through the iron. And as Allen Fieldhouse began to detonate, McLemore began to run back on defense.
“When it left my hand,” McLemore said. “I actually kind of called bank.”
There was still overtime, of course. And the Jayhawks would ride the momentum of McLemore’s moment to a 97-89 victory over Iowa State in their Big 12 opener. But this game was won in the final seconds of regulation as McLemore, who would finish with 33 points, put the Jayhawks on his freshman shoulders.
“We had the formula to lose that game,” KU senior center Jeff Withey said. “We were down with a couple minutes left, and they kept on getting offensive rebounds and scoring. And Ben just kind of took over.”
McLemore, who was playing his first conference game, finished a 6 of 6 from behind the arc and 10 of 12 from the field. He was also 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. For one night, McLemore looked like a player who was embracing the moment, like a freshman going through another step toward stardom.
“When you look at him,” Johnson said, “you just feel like he’s trying his hardest to do everything right.”
After the game, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg confessed that he wished McLemore’s shot would have swished. Then, Hoiberg said, maybe he would have felt a little bit better about it. His team came into Allen Fieldhouse with a formula for an upset, knocking down 14 three-pointers and going on a 14-1 run in the second half. But in the final seconds, Hoiberg elected not to foul. And McLemore made him pay for it.
“He’s got the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” said Hoiberg, who worked as an NBA executive before taking a job at his alma mater.
The Jayhawks improved to 13-1 and 1-0 in the Big 12. And they now have 17 conference games left to clinch their ninth straight Big 12 title. Maybe it won’t be a cakewalk, as so many expected. But perhaps Wednesday’s victory will make the Jayhawks take notice of the challenges to come.
“It’s kind of a Catch 22,” Self said. “You want guys to believe that they can’t lose at home. That’s good. But you also want them to understand that anybody can beat you.”
Late Wednesday night, McLemore came out of the KU locker room and began to sign autographs for a long line of Kansas fans. He had played the best game of his young career, a 33-point masterpiece. But in the minutes after, he thought back to Michigan State. This time, when his teammates needed him most, he had made the right read and run the play right.
“It was a good release,” McLemore said. “I mean, it went in. So I’m glad.”