It came to Baylor as underdog, this Kansas program that had won 10 straight Big 12 titles and 23 straight conference openers.
For more than a decade, Kansas coach Bill Self has built a program that has never really bothered to think of itself as anybody’s underdog. But that’s what No. 12 Kansas was on Wednesday night at the Ferrell Center. As the hunt for an 11th straight Big 12 title began, the Jayhawks arrived in this central Texas arena as three-point underdogs. Expected to lose.
And until the final seconds, it looked as if that was a distinct possibility. So consider this Kansas’ opening salvo to the rest of the Big 12, a 56-55 victory over No. 21 Baylor on Wednesday night. For Self, some truths never quite die. When the game is close in the final minutes, and pressure of a road environment begins to weigh heavy, nobody pulls out victories quite like Kansas.
“You may think it’s a pretty good win,” Self said. “But trust me, at the end of the year, this will go down as a really good win.”
How did Kansas win this game? The easy answer is that the Jayhawks shot 72.7 percent in the second half and erased a 22-18 halftime deficit. Wayne Selden, who was basically silent for 35 minutes, exploded with seven points in the final minutes. Brannen Greene made two clutch free throws. (He’s now 17 of 17 from the line on the season.) Sophomore point guard Frank Mason made his usual plays. Junior Jamari Traylor was a sudden master at dissecting Baylor’s zone, finishing with 13 points, five rebounds and two assists before fouling out with more than five minutes left.
“We didn’t play very well as a team collectively,” Self said, “but we had different guys step up and make plays.”
But in the moments after the game, the equation still didn’t feel like it all fit together. The Jayhawks shot 27.6 percent in the first half. Junior forward Perry Ellis was a no-show. Selden was a half-show. The Bears had multiple chances to win in the final moments.
Trailing 54-53, Baylor had nearly taken the lead on a transition run-out after a missed three-pointer from Mason and a mad scramble for a loose ball. But Baylor’s Royce O’Neale missed a layup, and big-man Rico Gathers missed a tip-in around the basket with 13 seconds left.
The ball stayed with Baylor, but Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre, who had just been subbed in for defense, used his 7-foot-1 wingspan to force a turnover on the ensuing possession. For a split second, it appeared that Gathers had flashed open near the basket, but the ball belonged to Kansas.
“That was big-time,” Greene said. “That was the play of the game.”
Greene, who had entered the game 15 of 15 from the free-throw line, would calmly make both ends of a one-and-one situation, and with a 56-33 lead, Self elected to foul on the next possession. On most occasions, Self says, he has a simple formula for fouling up three points. Under five seconds, you foul. Otherwise, you don’t. The Jayhawks fouled at exactly five seconds.
“We rolled the dice,” Self said. “We played the percentages, and we really got lucky.”
Baylor point guard Kenny Chery, who finished with a game-high 25 points, made both free throws, and Baylor fouled Kansas’ Mason with 3.9 remaining. Mason missed, but Kansas lived when the Bears failed to get a shot off as the buzzer sounded.
The Jayhawks are now 12-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big 12. And amidst all the other numbers, the Jayhawks have yet to lose a close game.
“We’re just a close-knit team,” Greene said. “That’s one of the reasons I feel like we pulled out this win, too. It’s the experience that we have. It’s been an up-and-down season for us. There’s been times where it wasn’t the greatest for us, and we had to come together as a team.”
On Wednesday, that meant surviving a physical Baylor front line that snatched 17 offensive rebounds and out-boarded Kansas 36-28. The Jayhawks, who have been offensively challenged for most of the year, buckled down on defense, holding Baylor to 34 percent shooting for the game.
Now Kansas will return home to face Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. If the Jayhawks can hold serve at home, they face the prospect of starting 3-0 in the Big 12 before heading to Iowa State on Jan. 17. But that’s all in the future.
In the moment, Self is standing inside the Ferrell Center, holding a box score, still slightly unsure how his team found a way.
“You’re not going to win that game very often on the road,” Self said.
“So that was huge. That was huge.”