LAWRENCE — Thomas Robinson was finally feeling it. After missing two dunks to start the game — Robinson does not miss dunks — he had banked in a short jumper and driven to the basket for a layup on back-to-back possessions.
Robinson returned to the defensive end and made a decision: No matter what happened, no matter where he caught the ball, he was going to fire away on Kansas’ next trip down the floor. Sure enough, Elijah Johnson passed to Robinson near the top of the key. Robinson did not hesitate, unfurling a shot that would be questionable under any other circumstance. Certainly, over the last week, Robinson had earned the right to shoot that 18-foot jumper.
And what do you know? The kid swished it, picking up a key bit of confirmation in the process.
“It was a heat-check,” Robinson said with a smile.
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Robinson and the Jayhawks were searching for normalcy on Saturday night at Allen Fieldhouse. The first true sign that they had found it during their 90-66 thumping of Kansas State came moments after that shot with 14 minutes, 22 seconds left, when KU coach Bill Self removed Robinson from the game and the 19-year-old sophomore walked to the bench to a chorus of “T-Rob!” cheers from the crowd.
“He got on a roll there for a minute,” Self said. “Good thing he got tired, or he would have shot the next one maybe from half-court.”
Maybe so, and who could have blamed him? It had been a long week — the longest of his life. Robinson’s mother, Lisa Robinson, died on Jan. 21, leaving him and his 7-year-old sister, Jayla, without a guardian. The next day, Robinson played through the pain, and the Jayhawks had lost to Texas, putting an end to a school-record home-court winning streak. Thursday, Robinson buried his mother. Soon after, he decided that he would play Saturday against in-state rival K-State.
“I know my mother wouldn’t want me sitting around crying about it forever,” Robinson said in his first public comments since his mother’s passing of what is believed to be a heart attack. “I gotta keep going on, keep striving for my goals.”
For one night, the goals were to keep in-state rival K-State in its place and put the Texas game in the rear-view mirror. Markieff Morris got the Jayhawks started with nine points and eight rebounds in the first half, helping KU build a 37-20 halftime lead. Robinson had two points and three rebounds at that point but took over the game in the second half, finishing with 17 and nine, respectively.
When Robinson hit the long jumper in question, the Jayhawks led 55-31, and it was clear that No. 6 KU was not going to have a second-half letdown as it did a week earlier when the Longhorns erased a 12-point halftime lead.
After putting their fans through that disappointment, all of the Jayhawks felt as if they owed the 16,300 supporters in the building on Saturday something extra. For Robinson, the need to please went way deeper.
“The support I received touched me beyond words,” Robinson said, “and it’s still coming. I can’t say thank you to everybody, because it is physically impossible.”
Against K-State, Robinson could thank Kansas fans and honor his mother’s memory by playing his heart out. The Jayhawks followed suit, taking all of the suspense out of this one early by jumping out to a 15-2 lead.
The Jayhawks, now 20-1 and 5-1 in the Big 12, won by dominating Kansas State inside. Morris finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, and the Jayhawks beat K-State 38-34 on the glass. Kansas has now won 42 of 44 in the series.
Robinson’s last four points came on two authoritative dunks, making up for those earlier misses. The first one drew a technical foul because Robinson slapped his hand against the backboard. K-State’s Jacob Pullen went to the other end to shoot free throws, and “N-I-T!” chants rained down from the Allen rafters. It was Pullen who said earlier this season that he wouldn’t play in the NIT, but the Wildcats, now 14-8 and 2-5, took one step closer to that fate on Saturday.
This struggling K-State team didn’t have much of a chance, not in an emotional Allen Fieldhouse that was looking to bring Robinson back to the fold with a win. Signs read “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” and “0 is our hero,” referring to Robinson’s No. 0 jersey.
When Self took Robinson out for good, the crowd gave him one final cheer. Robinson turned and waved.
“This past month really did open my eyes to how amazing this place is,” Robinson said. “It’s beyond words, how I feel and the love that I have for Kansas University.”