LAWRENCE — Thirty seconds remained in Sherron Collins' Allen Fieldhouse career when Cole Aldrich pulled Collins in for a hug, their last on that hallowed slab of wood. The crowd began to chant Collins' name as flashbulbs from hundreds of cameras captured a moment he wasn't ready to face.
"I didn't want to get off the court," Collins said. "I just wished the game could keep going all night."
Then it happened. Conner Teahan in for Collins. The love came from every direction, including from Kansas State guard Denis Clemente, who clapped along with the 16,300 fans as the clock ran off the clock on Kansas' 82-65 beatdown of the Wildcats. That's how much this was Collins' night, but if he didn't get some much-needed help from his friends, Collins may not have been giving his long-awaited senior speech in such a festive atmosphere.
The Jayhawks won the outright Big 12 regular-season title for the second straight season, but they wouldn't have done it without the efforts of Collins' teammates, who came to The Phog on Wednesday night to win for him. Collins finished with 17 points, but he started the game by making 1 of 10 shots. In the meantime, Xavier Henry, Markieff Morris and Tyshawn Taylor did more than enough to punch out the ever-surly Wildcats.
Henry had a team-high 19 points, and Morris had 10 points and nine rebounds (five offensive) and Taylor played the role of a true point guard with 11 points, four assists and one turnover. How much of that was fueled from a desire to send Collins out on top?
"All of it," Henry said.
"The whole thing," Morris agreed.
Collins may have reaped the benefits of their efforts, but they weren't lost on KU coach Bill Self.
"(Henry and Morris) were our two best players tonight," Self said. "I thought Markieff was fabulous. They controlled the glass, but to see we had 14 points to five on second-chance opportunities.... Markieff made the most of the opportunities, and of course Xavier's been terrific for the past month. He made shots, but he was also aggressive driving the ball."
Truth be told, it looked as if No. 2 KU (28-2, 14-1 Big 12) was going to win this one despite the efforts of Collins and Aldrich, who likely also played his final game at Allen. Aldrich, a junior projected as an NBA lottery pick, had two points and one rebound in 14 minutes in the first half. Self had to tell Collins and Aldrich to relax.
"Cole gets one basket and one rebound, and Sherron had both our turnovers," Self said. "They didn't play well the first half. But I told (Collins), 'You know, your bad shots led to baskets for them.' He was just pressing."
Collins and Aldrich perked up and joined their teammates just in time to avoid a stressful finish with the Wildcats (24-5, 11-4). K-State, paced by 15 first-half points from Jacob Pullen and aided by Collins' and Aldrich's slow start, tied the score at 45-45 by going on a 7-0 run to start the second half.
Self called a timeout, and Brady Morningstar came out and drilled a contested three-pointer that got the Jayhawks going.
"Biggest shot of the game," Self said.
Morningstar was another guy just out there doing it for Collins. They were roommates their freshman year and have become like brothers, so much so that Morningstar couldn't fight back tears as Collins talked about him and his family during his senior speech.
"(Collins) means a lot to the people in that locker room," Self said. "That was pretty evident by Brady. Brady cried more than he did. But it was also emotional for Cole."
Aldrich finished the game with nine points, four rebounds and three blocks. When it was over, Self addressed the crowd prior to Collins and mentioned how proud he was of Aldrich's recent academic All-America award. Aldrich then cried as the fans began to chant, "One more year!"
"Don't hold your breath on that one," Self said.
Kansas fans will always love Aldrich, but the guys who stay four years get this special night. For one night, it is all about them. Collins' teammates buoyed him throughout the first 25 minutes, and Collins paid them back with seven straight points as the Jayhawks pulled away.
"It was emotional for all of us," Morris said. "He's like a big brother. It's going to be tough not seeing him next year. But we went out with a bang, and I'm happy for him."