ARLINGTON, Texas — The weight of unfulfilled expectations came crashing down on Kansas senior Elijah Johnson in the tunnels at Cowboys Stadium, a short walk from where his career came to an end with an 87-85 overtime loss to Michigan on Friday in the NCAA South Regional semifinals.
Approaching the locker room, Johnson had to stop dead in his tracks several times, bent over at the knees, fighting back tears, until coach Bill Self had to come back down to get him.
“Come on now,” Self said to Johnson, placing his hand on his shoulder. “Come on now, we’ve got to go.”
Johnson, who scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, didn’t play his worst game against the Wolverines, but seemed to find the most inopportune moments to make mistakes.
Playing defense less than two minutes into the first half, Johnson struck Michigan power forward Mitch McGary in the groin with his right fist while McGary was trying to screen and was called for a Flagrant 1 foul after the play was reviewed.
Johnson picked up his second foul with 16:43 left in the first half and didn’t come back in until the 9:21 mark ... and then was called for his third foul four seconds later.
“I didn’t see (the flagrant foul), but obviously the official said he did it, so he did it, the film doesn’t lie,” Self said. “That’s not how we play. And that was not smart at all. And then he hits a bid second foul with a charge, when all he had to do was stop and shoot it.
“The third foul he plays for ... seconds and gets that one.”
Johnson didn’t make excuses for the early fouls — specifically the flagrant.
“I mean, that’s what I did, I wasn’t thinking,” Johnson said. “No reason for doing it, just a dumb play.”
Johnson’s worst moments came late in the game as the Jayhawks watched a 10-point lead disappear over the final three minutes.
Leading 70-60 with 3:17 to play, Johnson turned the ball over three times in 90 seconds, each leading to a Michigan basket, the final one by McGary cutting Kansas’ lead to 72-66 with 1:54 remaining.
On the last play of overtime, Self set up a play for Johnson that was supposed to result in a layup, but Johnson thought his path to the hoop was blocked and he kicked it out to Naadir Tharpe, who had to hoist up a contested, off-balance three-pointer. Johnson finished with five turnovers.
“I wasn’t really open,” Tharpe said. “I had to make a move and didn’t get a very good shot up.”
Handed the keys to the Kansas offense, Johnson never was able to fit into the role of point guard. And beside a 39-point performance in a win over Iowa State, his season seemed like one, long valley.
“We had higher dreams than just making it to the Sweet 16 ... it’s the standards that we’re supposed to live up to playing for Kansas,” Johnson said. “This just isn’t good enough ... regardless of how many games we won, we expected a lot more.”
And did he view his career as a disappointment now, despite making an Elite Eight as a sophomore and a national championship game as a junior?
Johnson didn’t answer that question with words.
He bit his lower lip and ran his hands over the top of his white game shorts, pulling them back to reveal thigh pads underneath.
He nodded his head, slowly in affirmation, his emotions coming back to the surface. He pulled a white towel tightly across his neck, several teammates keeping a watchful eye from not far away.
The weight of expectations is a precarious thing. To say when you know the exact moment when they will come crashing down is impossible.
Friday night, Johnson found out as much.