For 37 minutes Sunday, Kansas’ NCAA Tournament existence was on life-support, and then the strangest thing happened.
Elijah Johnson broke into a grin.
Tyshawn Taylor saw it, and knew something good was about to happen.
“You go back and look,” Taylor said. “He had a smile on his face.”
That smile was the look of confidence as a deep three-pointer left Johnson’s hand.
Down it went. The Jayhawks had plenty of work remaining in their Midwest Region third-round game against Purdue, and Johnson made it happen.
His lob turned into a slam by Taylor and his steal and driving layup with 23 seconds remaining proved to be the winning points in an improbable 63-60 win over the Boilermakers.
“He was everywhere the last three minutes,” Kansas senior guard Taylor said. “He kind of controlled the game.”
Because he did, KU advances to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year and will meet North Carolina State on Friday in St. Louis.
The outcome was sealed when the Boilermakers’ Ryne Smith missed a running banked three-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied the score, and the Kansas contingent — on the bench and the majority of fans in CenturyLink Center — felt a mixture of jubilation and relief.
“I feel like the world just dropped off my back,” Kansas’ Thomas Robinson said. “I mean, we get another week to practice. I’ve never been so happy to practice again.”
Sparking a comeback isn’t new territory for Johnson. When KU trailed by 19 to Missouri late in the regular season, Johnson hit a pair of three pointers to kick-start the comeback victory.
The stakes were even higher Sunday, and the evening looked bleak.
KU (29-6) trailed from the outset and never led in the game’s first 37 minutes.
But Johnson swished a deep three for a 57-56 lead with 3:04 remaining.
Purdue scored the next four. When Taylor missed a three and Robinson missed a stickback, things looked bleak.
But Kansas got a run out after a Purdue miss and Johnson’s lob to Taylor was slammed home to have KU pull within 60-59.
The Jayhawks took their last time out with 59.9 seconds remaining and Kansas trapped point guard Lewis Jackson. Johnson got the steal and beat the Boilermakers' defenders to the bucket and laid it in with 23.3 seconds remaining.
“I felt I had to attack the rim,” Johnson said.
Kansas led 61-60 but wasn’t safe, not the way Robbie Hummel was stroking it for Purdue. The senior who has missed the previous two NCAA Tournaments with knee surgeries was amazing with 22 in the first half.
But his running three off a screen with about seven seconds left banged off the iron, and Taylor finished at the other end, setting up Purdue’s final gasp.
“I thought it was going in,” Hummel said. “It felt good off my hand.”
Johnson finished with the biggest 18 points of his college career.
“He was our best player in Omaha,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Purdue bottled up Robinson all night. He finished with 11 points on 2 of 12 shooting. Taylor had 10 but was just as ineffective from the field.
KU’s second-half defense was crucial. Purdue shot 54.5 percent in the first half but only 28.6 after the break. The Jayhawks ran some triangle-in-two in the second half to help slow the Boilermakers’ pace.
The Boilermakers hit KU with a 8-0 run to open the game and the lead swelled to 11 in the early going.
“We were terrible early on,” Self said.
The Jayhawks battled back by getting scoring from unlikely sources. Seldom-used guard Naadir Tharpe buried his sixth three-pointer of the season to close to gap to 23-19.
Kansas got to 31-30, but Purdue stretched it out before halftime. A huge moment came when the Boilermakers were up against the shot clock and Hummel drilled a 28-footer as the clock expired.
Hummel, an All-Big Ten guard, couldn’t miss before the break. He made seven of eight from the field and five of six from the line.
Kansas had Robinson defending Hummel early and Robinson couldn’t keep up. Hummel had five points in the first 2½ minutes before the Jayhawks switched to different defenders.
“He’s an amazing player,” Robinson said.
Travis Releford provided the early spark with eight points, and Conner Teahan knocked down a pair of threes to help the Jayhawks keep pace.
“Teams usually win a game in the tournament where they don’t play their best,” Self said. “Hopefully this was that game.”