LAWRENCE — After the dam had crumbled — after the 39-point performance against Iowa State in Ames and a police escort back to the locker room — Elijah Johnson high-stepped through an entryway and disappeared into a riotous mass of blue jerseys.
Johnson had been the last player off the floor after Kansas’ overtime victory over the Cyclones, and his teammates had bided their time, bracing for an unrestrained mob scene.
A moment after Johnson appeared, Bill Self followed, setting a drink down before clapping like a man who’d just finished a screening of the film “Argo.”
“I knew our guys liked Elijah,” Self said. “But I didn’t realize how much they respected him and liked him until after the (Iowa State) game. I had never seen a group of guys more happy for one guy than they were for Elijah.”
To get a fuller understanding of this scene, you have to go back to a Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse in early February. On that day, in the moments after Kansas lost 85-80 to Oklahoma State, Self had stated that Kansas didn’t have a point guard. Johnson had turned the ball over in the final seconds, clinching KU’s second home loss in 104 games. And turnovers were the least of Johnson’s problems.
In his final season on campus, he had gone ice cold.
To see Johnson struggle during the Jayhawks’ three-game losing streak, any observer might have come away with the same concern: Was KU’s senior point guard broken beyond repair?
Before Johnson’s historic breakout against Iowa State, he had shown signs that he was close to emerging from his midyear slump. He attacked the basket more. He chucked up fewer threes. He worried about the things that Self wanted him to worry about.
But after scoring 20 points in the final 5 minutes, 35 seconds of KU’s victory at Hilton Coliseum — a performance that Self called the best since he’s been at KU — the locker room scene served as a passionate funeral for the old Elijah.
“I don’t see me reverting back,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of that thing where you know you can do it, now you just gotta continue to try to do it.”
The prospect of a swaggering Johnson can certainly help those in Lawrence dream a little bigger. The Jayhawks (24-4, 12-3 Big 12), return to the floor at 1 p.m. Saturday against West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse. And if Johnson is locked in again, he can punish opposing defenses for putting too much focus on freshman guard Ben McLemore and senior center Jeff Withey.
“I feel like I can help everybody now that I can stretch the defense,” Johnson said.
Last season, Johnson went through a similar phase during conference play. He was averaging 8.1 points through KU’s first 31 games — before coming alive in the postseason. Johnson scored 15.1 points during KU’s last eight games, fueling the Jayhawks’ run to the NCAA championship game.
This season, Johnson appeared to be hampered by physical issues. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last summer, and he didn’t appear to be the same kid that once threw down a between-the-legs dunk during a high school all-star game.
These days, Johnson says he’s feeling better. But Self has seen his point guard grow in other areas.
“I think he’s just learned how to play,” Self said. “I think he’s a much better basketball player than he was when he got here, there’s no question about that. You look at all these NBA players. They’re freaky athletic in their first five years in the league, then they become great the next five years in the league because they’ve learned the game goes in slow motion; it’s not in fast-forward anymore.
“You see and you feel the game differently. I think he’s become one of those guys."
And with just two games left in Allen Fieldhouse, Johnson says it feels like he’s right on time for the second straight season. After that magical night in Hilton Coliseum — and a locker-room party — Johnson can believe in himself again.
“I’m not used to it being me,” Johnson said. “So when I came into the locker room, and the team did that, I think the coaching staff saw a side of me they haven’t seen too many times. I felt good about it. My team made me feel good.”