Cliff Alexander nodded his head and cracked a sly smile. Allen Fieldhouse was exploding into a cloud of noise. Kansas was surviving the night after a wild ride.
It was late on Monday night, and just moments earlier, Alexander, the Jayhawks’ burly freshman big man, had scrambled for an offensive rebound and kept a play alive. Then he was drawing a offensive foul on the other end. Then he was finishing with a dunk on the other end.
“I think my motor was real good,” Alexander would say.
This, of course, was not how No. 11 Kansas had drawn up an 85-78 victory over No. 20 Oklahoma on Big Monday. You don’t ever plan to build a 20-point lead in the first half, take a 19-point lead into halftime, and then give it all back (and then some) in the second half.
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But that was life for Kansas on Monday, another manic day in the Big 12 Conference. Just two days earlier, Kansas coach Bill Self had benched Alexander for all but two minutes in a loss at Iowa State. On Monday, Alexander played the role of hero, sparking a late run as the Jayhawks avoided a near epic collapse on their home floor.
“Cliff has been a struggle,” Self said. “He’s the most coachable kid in the world and we all love him, but he’s been a struggle because hasn’t brought the same energy level consistently. And when he doesn’t play with the same energy level and bounce, he just becomes average.”
The Jayhawks, though, have designs on so much more from this season — and so much more from Alexander. To reach their ceiling, Self says, the Jayhawks need Alexander to be a force.
“Let’s be honest,” Self said. “Perry (Ellis) and Jamari (Traylor) are great, but they don’t give us the physical presence like Cliff potentially does. We need that. It changes our team.”
On Monday, it changed the game. During the most pivotal stretch, Alexander set up a Brannen Greene three-pointer with a key offensive rebound and then finished a dunk that would give the Jayhawks a 77-74 lead with two minutes left. Just minutes earlier, the Kansas had trailed 69-65, the remnants of a 19-point halftime lead that had disappeared.
But Alexander would finish with 13 points and 13 rebounds, and freshman Kelly Oubre would add 19 points and nine boards as the Jayhawks moved to 15-3 overall and 4-1 in the Big 12, drawing even with rival Kansas State for the conference lead.
“(Self) tells me every day,” Alexander said. “I need to play with a motor. Sometimes I should, but sometimes I don’t. But I need to keep it consistent.”
In the past weeks, Alexander says, Self has offered video examples in Thomas Robinson and Joel Embiid. But at times, the message hasn’t quite sunk in.
“He hasn’t been playing with that free mind,” Self said. “We just need to say: ‘Screw up. That’s fine. Screw up. Just make sure you do it 100 miles an hour.’”
On Monday, the Jayhawks did everything at that speed. They built a big lead. They let it fall apart. Oklahoma had opened the second half on a 24-5 run, turning a 51-32 halftime deficit into a 56-56 game with 10:58 left. Moments later, the Sooners would lead 59-58 after a free throw from Buddy Hield, and the Kansas collapse — at least for a moment — was almost complete. In less than 10 minutes, the Jayhawks had let a 19-point advantage slip away. Kansas, which had drained its first eight three-point attempts, made just one of its next 10 shots from long distance.
It had all felt so different in the first half. For the first 20 minutes, it felt as if the Basketball Gods were at work here inside Allen Fieldhouse, nudging every Kansas shot, coaxing every basketball through the rim.
With just more than eight minutes left in the half, the Jayhawks were already a perfect 7 of 7 from three-point range, already beginning to run Oklahoma out of Allen Fieldhouse. As the early offensive deluge continued, Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham caught the ball near the top of the key pulled up from 22 feet, clanking a long three off the back iron. The ball popped straight up into the air, before gently falling through the net for the Jayhawks’ eighth three in eight attempts.
Graham’s three-pointer pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to 39-19 — their largest lead — and punctuated a 23-6 run. Then came the second half, and everything changed.
“We were great,” Self said, “and I just think they were great.”
Just 45 hours before Monday night’s tip, the image and emotion had been so vastly. Back on Saturday night, the Jayhawks were filing out of Hilton Coliseum, a somber walk after an 86-81 loss at Iowa State. Kansas would have less than two full days to regroup for Oklahoma, a fact that pushed up against the Big 12 bylaws for scheduling.
Self, of course, was pleased that his program was playing two straight primetime games on national television. But in the moments after the Iowa State loss, he had taken a moment to point out the bylaws — and the Jayhawks’ quick turnaround.
Perhaps fatigue played a factor during the second half on Saturday. Perhaps the Jayhawks just stopped making jumpers and lost their mojo on the defensive end. Perhaps it was some confluence of factors, forcing two ranked Big 12 teams into another wild finish. Whatever the case, one thing made the difference: Alexander is learning how to play at the right speed.
“Our young kids came through,” Self said, “and it was a great, great basketball game and an unbelievable win.”