Elijah Johnson lay flat on his stomach, looking back toward the other end of the floor.
One ill-timed dribble had turned into one final turnover. Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart won the scramble for the ball. And now, with Kansas trailing by three and the clock running out, Oklahoma State freshman Phil Forte was racing the other way for a buzzer-beating cap to a stunning upset at Allen Fieldhouse.
This was the final scene from a Saturday afternoon surprise, which ended with Oklahoma State escaping with an 85-80 victory over No. 2 Kansas — and KU coach Bill Self questioning his team’s toughness and guard play.
“We got what we deserved,” Self said.
While the Cowboys celebrated on the court, Johnson dusted himself off and headed toward the Kansas bench. In a moment, the streaks were gone. Most of them, anyway. The loss ended runs of 18 straight victories and 33 straight wins at Allen Fieldhouse. The last loss at Allen Fieldhouse: Texas, on Jan. 22, 2011. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, hadn’t won at Allen since 1990.
“This one hurts,” KU’s Jeff Withey said. “Just … we don’t really lose at home.”
Because the final turnover came at the end, after an improbable last-gasp comeback, it would be easy to dwell on the sight of Johnson losing his handle in the game’s most important moment. But Self preferred a full-scale evaluation, one that wasn’t much prettier than the Jayhawks’ last play.
After weeks of splotchy play, Johnson, a senior, committed four of Kansas’ 16 turnovers and made 3 of his 14 shots. And in a twist that didn’t seem possible when the season began, KU (19-2, 7-1 Big 12) may have been better when Johnson wasn’t in the game.
“It’s sad,” Self said. “But we needed something, and we were definitely a better team with him over there sitting down next to us.”
Johnson’s struggles included two late turnovers that flipped a 66-62 lead into a 67-66 deficit. And with both teams needing plays in the final moments, Self watched as Oklahoma State’s Smart took the game over with 25 points, eight offensive rebounds, and eight straight points as the Cowboys stretched the lead to 77-69 with 1:01 remaining.
“He definitely whipped our guards,” Self said. “I mean, he whipped them. That was a physical beatdown.”
The KU offense also went feeble against Oklahoma State’s two-three zone. But right on cue, Kansas nearly pulled another Allen Fieldhouse miracle. Trailing by eight, freshmen Ben McLemore (23 points) and Andrew White hit back-to-back threes. Oklahoma State turned the ball over and fouled White on the ensuing in-bounds play. And White, who hadn’t played all game, made one of two free throws to cut the lead to 78-76.
Johnson made the score 81-80 with less than 20 seconds left, before Oklahoma State’s Forte made two free throws with 7.9 seconds left, setting up the final possession.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said he didn’t want to foul with his best rebounders on the bench. And KU tried to spring McLemore for an open three.
“They backed off,” Self said, “and Elijah had a wide-open three. All he had to do was just bounce it and shoot it, and he tried to go past them. … I have no idea where he’s going.”
If there was anything to learn from the furious rally, it was that the Jayhawks should have never been in that position in the first place. For weeks, the Jayhawks cut it close in conference play, staying perfect with dominant defense and often ugly offense. Even before Saturday, they knew it wouldn’t cut it much longer.
“We’re not gonna be able to (win) every miracle game,” sophomore Naadir Tharpe said. “We have to figure out a way to start stepping on people’s throat right away.”
When it was over, Self said this may be the most physically soft team he has coached at KU, and he says that mostly as fact — not necessarily a challenge for his team. The Jayhawks lack sound decision-making in the backcourt, and more muscle in the frontcourt. But both those can be corrected — whether through smarter play or more effort.
“We’ll get it back,” Self said. “But we’ve got to realize who we are. We’re a team that’s gonna have to live on winning the way we’ve been winning. Defense. Rebounding. Executing down the stretch.”
There’s the old saying in college basketball that a loss can be good for a team. And maybe that will be the case. The Jayhawks will return to the floor on Wednesday at last-place TCU, a pretty good place to bounce back. But as Self said on Saturday, the Jayhawks were living on “borrowed time.” And finally, that time came up.
“We’re gonna get a lot better from this loss,” Withey said. “We thought that we were a lot better than what we were, obviously. And a loss like this is just gonna bring us back to reality.”