Out of all the scenes from Clay Young’s life Friday, this one was probably the best.
He’d just been clocked — getting blindsided by a left forearm to the chest from Tennessee State’s Ken’Darrius Hamilton — before returning to Kansas’ team huddle for a media timeout.
Once a flagrant-one foul was called, KU coach Bill Self delivered some advice.
“You’re going to be up there at the line by yourself,” he said. “No pressure.”
Sure. Thanks, Coach.
Young, a walk-on from Lansing, Kan., had never played for KU in the first half of a regular-season game. He missed the first free throw only to turn around and see teammates chirping at him from halfcourt.
“Devonté (Graham) and Malik (Newman) were just like, ‘Come on, man. Just make it. You know you can make it. Just shoot it,’” Young said. “I was like, ‘OK, I got it. I got it.’”
Young made the second try, part of a two-minute first-half stint where he was able to help out with Billy Preston serving a one-game suspension.
“It was super cool,” Young said of getting in early. “I just tried to go in and play my role and do what I could do.”
He knew early Friday that he might be needed. KU video coordinator Jeremy Case approached him before the game, telling him to stay locked in. Then, at around the 8-minute mark in the first half, Self came down the bench and told him to get ready.
Young took off his warm-up pants, and two minutes later, he followed orders: “Clay, go get Doke.”
Young started to contribute immediately. After receiving the ball in the post, he quickly redirected a pass to Svi Mykhailiuk in the corner, who swished an open three. The play brought Self off the bench, pumping both fists skyward in celebration.
“It was just instinct, I guess,” Young said. “I didn’t think about it. I just caught the ball and whipped it over there to him.”
The next minute had excitement too. After getting shoved on the defensive end by Hamilton — a big man 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than him — Young was knocked down by the big man’s forearm while running to the offensive end.
“I was definitely shocked when it happened,” Young said. “I laid there on the floor for a second. I was fine, though. It didn’t hurt.”
Young finished with three points, two assists and a turnover in five minutes, drawing praise from Self in the postgame press conference.
Friday’s spotlight was quite a change from three years ago, when Young was starring at Kansas City Kansas Community College and receiving offers from Division-II schools before his sophomore season.
His life changed on Nov. 15, 2014, though, when he jostled his left knee when going up for a layup. Though the trainer later cleared him to return to the game — and he did — two days later the MRI diagnosis was a torn ACL.
“It was a bummer at the time. It was like the worst thing that I thought could ever happen to me,” Young said. “But it turned out to be maybe one of the most positive things in my life.”
Instead of going D-II, Young rehabbed before his coach, Kelley Newton, spoke to Self. Young later became a KU walk-on, and three years later, a first-half contributor for a top-five team.
“It put me here, and this has been the best three years of my life,” Young said of his injury. “Hopefully I can make the most of it this year.”