KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Oklahoma State had to win its Big 12 quarterfinal match against Kansas just to have a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, had likely already guaranteed themselves a No. 1 seed and a convenient bus ride to Tulsa next week.
So what did No. 2 KU actually gain from its 63-62 victory over the Cowboys at the Sprint Center? Other than the usual satisfaction that comes from being better than your opponent, what did Oklahoma State freshman Jean-Paul Olukemi's missed game-winning three-point attempt at the buzzer actually mean for the Jayhawks?
It would probably be best if sophomore guard Elijah Johnson got to explain.
Kansas led by one with 48 seconds left, and KU coach Bill Self called timeout. Self wanted to sub Tyrel Reed into the game, and he was either going to take out Johnson or Tyshawn Taylor. Self chose to remove Taylor, and there was Johnson, Self's new starting point guard, with one offensive possession and one defensive possession to reward Self for his trust.
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This was Johnson's 68th game at Kansas, but he had never been on the floor to finish out a tight game.
"Definitely the first-time ever in college ball," Johnson said. "Just that feeling of being out there, knowing that anything can happen. It's anybody's game."
Even for Johnson's more experienced teammates, there have only been a handful of games this season — UCLA, Southern California, Michigan and the first Nebraska game come to mind — that created that beautiful tension.
Self called a play for the Jayhawks, and Johnson noticed that his coach didn't say anything extra to him.
"He wasn't nervous about having me out there," Johnson said, "which made me feel good."
But KU's possession did not go as planned. The play had to be scrapped, and Self wanted to save his last timeout, so it was up to Johnson to make a play of his own. The shot clock fell under 10 seconds, and, inside to Johnson's left, Marcus Morris was posted up waving his hand frantically.
"Begging for it," Morris said.
Johnson didn't pass to Morris — the Big 12's player of the year who had 16 points and 11 rebounds — and he instead continued moving toward Brady Morningstar, who was located in the corner. Johnson passed to Morningstar, who air-balled a three-pointer as the shot clock ran out for a 35-second violation.
"I put my faith in Brady," Johnson said. "I actually didn't even see Marcus in that play at all. I need to have a little better awareness with that."
The Jayhawks as a team had failed to put the Cowboys away, continuing to rely on the three, despite Oklahoma State's trio of big men all having fouled out of the game by the 2:55 mark. After Morningstar's miss, KU had made just 5 of 25 threes.
But that was over. The Jayhawks still led by one with 20 seconds left, and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford called a timeout. Self kept Johnson in the game, and gave him the most important assignment: Lock up Oklahoma State guard Keiton Page, who had 23 points.
Oklahoma State called a weave play, which asks the perimeter players to run a series of hand-offs with the goal of creating space to get into the lane. As the seconds dripped off the clock, Self didn't feel all that differently from Johnson.
"I've never been one to hope for things or wish for things or anything like that," Self said, "but I admit I was praying a little bit."
Yes, anything was possible at that point, and the strangest thing happened as the Cowboys tried to keep their season alive: Page didn't touch the ball.
"I wouldn't let him get it," Johnson said. "He was going to have to make it from out of bounds."
Instead, it was Olukemi who took a bad shot, and the Jayhawks (30-2) moved on to play Colorado tonight at 6 in the semifinals.
"Survive is not a word that we use around here," KU forward Mario Little said, "but we survived today."
Kansas won. It beat a desperate Oklahoma State team on a day when Reed and Morningstar combined to make 2 of 14 threes and the Jayhawks shot 36 percent as a team. KU didn't technically have to win this game. But, for guys like Johnson and Little, who scored his team's last five points, maybe it was necessary.
Johnson sat in a chair in front of his locker after the game, cutting the athletic tape from his ankles. On the whole, the last 48 seconds were a wash. He didn't make a play, and then he prevented one from being made. Most importantly, he was out there, feeling the heat one time before the temperature gets even hotter.
"It was fun," Johnson said, "but I didn't 100 percent enjoy it. I can't look at it as being disturbing. I have to learn from this situation."