Releford stars on Kansas' biggest stage
MAR 24, 2013 11:50p ET
"These could be our last 20 minutes," Kansas' senior guard, a Kansas City native, told his teammates in the locker room at halftime, trailing by nine to North Carolina. "We can go out and leave it all out on the court. Or we can let them roll over us, like we did the first half."
The bug? Or the windshield?
Your choice, dude.
"We looked at ourselves in the mirror," point guard Naadir Tharpe said after top-seeded Kansas rolled to a 70-58 victory over the 8th-seeded Tar Heels in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. "And (we said), ‘You know, we've got to make sure we help out the seniors more than they help us out. Because they work hard every single day.'"
Once Releford and the other Jayhawk seniors got out the jumper cables, the rest was academic. Kansas opened Sunday's second period with a 7-0 run, as a Jeff Withey slam cut Carolina's lead to 30-28 three minutes into the half.
Suddenly, a KU-friendly Sprint Center crowd awoke from their turnover-induced slumber, momentum rising like a temperature gauge. A 7-0 run became 14-5.
After missing 12 straight 3-point attempts between Friday against Western Kentucky and Sunday's first half against Carolina, the Jayhawks made good on four of their next seven from beyond the arc. Tharpe's trey with 10:32 left in the contest proved to be the deepest dagger, stretching the KU lead to 50-38.
"We couldn't stop ‘em," offered Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, now 0-3 against his former school since leaving Kansas for Carolina in 2003. "I think their defense even fed off that. When the ball started going in the basket, I thought their defense got even stronger."
The Big Dance, when you get right down to it, is about shooters. Shooters and defensive stops.
Releford, the Jayhawks' off-guard, was 9 of 13 from the floor with 22 points, eight boards and three steals. Reggie Bullock, the Heels off-guard Releford got assigned to chase, went 1-for-7 with five points and three turnovers.
Carolina sits. Kansas dances on.
"You know, I said, ‘Your man's only got five points, only scored one basket,'" recalled Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who notched his 300th win as Williams' replacement. "He said, ‘No, he didn't. He didn't get any on me. That was during a switch or sub.' So, yeah, he did a great job on Bullock. Bullock's a good player and he's got great size, and Travis did a great job on him … yeah, Travis played about as well as he's played in a Kansas uniform."
There's something about the Sprint Center, the jewel of Kansas City's Power & Light District, that brings out the best in Releford, who played prep ball just across the state line at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kan. The Kansas City native, came into Sunday averaging 11.5 points a contest; in eight tilts at Sprint — all Jayhawk wins — he's managed 14.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per contest. Against five non-Big 12 foes at Sprint, Releford's averaged 18.6 points and 4 boards.
"This is Travis' home," forward Kevin Young said.
"Kansas City, baby," guard Elijah Johnson added.
"I didn't want my career to end in Kansas City," explained Releford, who grew up roughly four miles from the P & L, just southeast of downtown. "So I just went out there and gave it my all."
That desperation was palpable Sunday, as Releford accounted for 13 second-half points and KU's first 3-point make of the weekend. As a rule, the Jayhawks go as their seniors — the law firm of Releford, Johnson, Withey and Young — go, on both ends of the floor. Silky freshman wing Ben McLemore may be the face of the program, but KU's upperclassmen are the heart and the soul.
And of that subset, Releford — whose son, T.J., turned 2 in January — is the go-to sensei, the rock of a locker room that's either very old or very young, and ne'er the twain. The underclassmen get their kicks by referring to Releford as ‘Pops,' or ‘Old Guy.' Johnson, of course, prefers another term.
"I call him ‘Big Homey,'" the KU point guard explained with a grin.
Wait. Big Homey?
"Because he can do some things that a lot of people can't do," Johnson replied.
"I know a lot of people, I don't want to say (they) sleep on him, but, you know, they'd rather go after somebody else, (like) Ben McLemore. So I push, I get into the paint, I see Travis sitting in the corner, I'm going to throw it to him, because I know he can make it. I know he can make it just as good as Ben can."
Great night. Clutch night. Best night?
"I've played a lot better games," Releford allowed, "without scoring as many points."
Such as …
"Can't remember," Releford chuckled. "Been here five years. I played so many games. The memory's lost already."
The game, though, is still golden. In March, when it's win or go home, Big Homey isn't shy about bringing the thunder.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com
+ SHOW COMMENTS +