Couldn’t you just imagine a corner in heaven on Saturday night where James Naismith, Phog Allen and Adolph Rupp were wrapped up in Kansas’ 90-84 overtime win over Kentucky at Allen Fieldhouse.
Naismith invented the game, which was played in a building with Allen’s name against a team that represents a dynasty overseen by Rupp.
What a night, past and present. Every time these two teams play — and as the two winningest programs in college basketball history shouldn’t they play every year — there’s something different in the air. There’s a distinct feeling that everyone who loves basketball, or has loved it, is paying attention.
What they saw Saturday was a dogfight interrupted by free throws. But mostly a dogfight in which the two teams went back and forth and two players, KU’s Wayne Selden and UK’s Tyler Ulis, rose to heights they’ve never before risen to.
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Selden had a career-high 33 points on 11-of-19 shooting. He scored 10 KU points during a three-minute stretch of the second half to lead the Jayhawks back from a 57-49 deficit to a 61-59 lead, after which neither team built more than a three-point lead through regulation.
He lit up the Fieldhouse after a stretch of play in the Big 12 with periods of darkness.
In eight conference games, Selden is shooting 44.2 percent overall and 39.6 percent from the three-point line. Respectable, but wait until you get a load of his non-conference numbers, bolstered Saturday.
In 13 games outside of the Big 12, Selden is shooting 56.1 percent overall and 52.3 percent from behind the three-point line.
“We wanted to get back out there and be aggressive and be a little tougher team than we have been for the past few games,” Selden said. “This was a step in the right direction. We’ve been a little flat so we were trying to come out today and be more aggressive.”
Selden picked a fine night to shine since the other four Kansas starters were 7 of 25 from the floor and 6-foot- 8 Perry Ellis got himself discombobulated with two early fouls that caused him to spend all but six minutes of the first half on the bench.
Kansas probably needed this one more than Kentucky, whose all-time edge over the Jayhawks is now 22-7. The Wildcats will live. KU was reeling going into Saturday’s game with a 5-3 Big 12 record. And they needed to avenge last season’s 72-40 loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, one of the most embarrassing, lethargic, pitiful performances in KU history.
“I’m hacked off that we lost,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But I’ll probably think of something good that we did.”
It’ll start with Ulis, a sophomore point guard who played all 45 minutes, the last several on wobbly wheels. He scored 26 on 11-of-19 shooting and had eight assists and three steals.
Kansas shot 47 free throws to Kentucky’s 22, but that’s because the Jayhawks did a great job of driving to the basket and hitting the offensive boards. They outrebounded the Wildcats 42-31, and 14 of those boards were offensive.
It was Selden, though, who hit the biggest shots, one after another. He played 44 of 45 minutes and cracked 20 points for the first time since KU’s triple-overtime win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4.
In his previous six games, all in the Big 12, Selden averaged 11.3 points and shot 38.7 percent. He picked a perfect time to find his shooting touch and, as he has all season after big games, credit KU guards Frank Mason and Devonte Graham with finding him when he was open.
KU and UK have given their fan bases cause for concern. After a 7-0 start, the Wildcats went 6-4 before reeling off three straight SEC wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Missouri.
Kansas, meanwhile, jumped all the way to No. 1 in the polls before losing three of five on the road at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
It was easy to sense the relief in the KU players after Saturday night’s win as they prepare for a stretch run that will determine whether or not the Jayhawks win a 12th consecutive Big 12 championship.
“It was a much bigger game to fans and probably the players that were playing it in the big picture,” Self said. “In the big picture hopefully it gives us some momentum going forward in the league.”
I disagree with Self. Kansas needed this win badly because it hasn’t just been the confidence of fans that have been waning, but also the confidence of the players.
Now KU has to figure out a way to beat somebody on the road in the Big 12. And Selden needs to figure out a way to play like this in the conference. That’s how the Jayhawks will really know if their ills are cured.