BOULDER, Colo. — It was nearly 20 minutes after the shot had fallen, the pain of the loss still fresh, and Kansas coach Bill Self stood in a back hallway Saturday inside the Coors Events Center. Everyone wanted to know what had just transpired.
Did Askia Booker travel? Did KU guard the buzzer-beater the right way? How did the Jayhawks come to this building, a place they once owned, and lose a 19-game winning streak against the Buffaloes?
Around the corner, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway had just slipped into the Colorado locker room, the former Broncos quarterback flashing that familiar big-toothed smile. Elway, presumably, was looking for Booker, a 6-foot-2 junior guard who had just carved out No. 6 Kansas’ heart with a 25-foot runner at the buzzer.
Colorado 75, Kansas 72.
“I wish we could do it over,” Self said.
Self couldn’t, of course. So instead, he replayed the situation in his mind. Three seconds on the clock. The score tied 72-72. Colorado inbounding the ball in the corner, near its own basket.
Before the final play, Kansas erased a six-point deficit in the final two minutes. Sophomore forward Perry Ellis knotted the game with a driving layup with four seconds left. And freshman Andrew Wiggins, who finished with a game-high 22 points, helped the Jayhawks come from nine down in the second half.
In situations such as this one, Self has two general rules: Make them catch the ball in front of you and switch all ball screens and handoffs. But as Colorado inbounded the ball, Booker got a step on KU freshman guard Frank Mason. Booker dribbled twice, then took pronounced steps, letting Mason fly underneath him.
“I thought he traveled,” Self said. “But it may have been that Euro big two-step deal.”
The look was clean, Booker let it fly, and the ball splashed through the net, inciting a raucous scene as the Colorado students stormed the court in a building once known to KU fans as “Allen Fieldhouse West.”
“(Mason) got on the side and he was able to clear himself where at least he got an open look,” Self said. “It wasn’t awful. It was more of a credit of him making a play than it was bad defense.”
For Kansas, after another last-second loss, the learning curve continues. Just more than a week ago, the Jayhawks were ranked No. 2 and taking on an unranked Villanova squad in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Now, after a second loss in three games, Kansas is facing the prospect of three losses in four games when it heads to No. 15 Florida on Tuesday.
“We’re not playing good at all, and the pieces just aren’t quite fitting yet,” Self said. “And we’re trying to find ourself. We’re not a real good shooting team yet, we’re not a real good passing team. We’re not a real physical team.”
For another day, an opponent used a zone defense to stifle the Jayhawks on offense. Kansas made 5 of 20 from three-point range, a trend that’s become a major issue. In the Jayhawks’ last four games, they’ve shot just 23 percent (15 of 65) from behind the arc.
On Saturday, many of those misses came after Colorado went to a zone defense. The Jayhawks took an 18-9 lead in the opening minutes, and freshman center Joel Embiid was dominating. When Colorado coach Tad Boyle turned to the zone, the Jayhawks lost control of the game.
“I think it’s more easy to score in the zone,” Embiid said. “But we didn’t really know how to do it like we always do in practice.”
To put it one way: The Jayhawks stopped attacking. That would change in the second half, after Self gave Wiggins a message to get to the rim. Wiggins, who shot 7 of 11 from the field, had 17 points after the break.
“That’s what I tried to do,” Wiggins said. “That’s what I’m best at, so I tried to attack.”
Kansas, though, just couldn’t come up with enough stops. And if Colorado would have made some free throws — the Buffs shot 22 of 37 from the line — the game might have been over before the final seconds.
“When … basically your best team out there is four freshmen and a sophomore,” Self said. “That’s a lot to learn.”
If there’s something positive to be gleaned, it’s that it’s twice taken a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds to beat KU. And Self says he never expected this to be a great team before Christmas. But for the second time in two weeks, KU put itself in position to lose — then watched the final shot go in.
“He had a one out of like 50 chance of making that shot,” Wiggins said, “and he made it.”