Tharpe turns ugly night into a beauty for KU
FEB 20, 2013 9:33p ET
No, no, Naadir.
No, no, no, no, no, no ...YES! YESSSS! WOOOOOOOOOOOO!
That, more or less, is what went through the minds of most Jayhawks fans with about 16 seconds left in the second overtime of Kansas-Oklahoma State, Part II. Minus the obscenities, of course.
Sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe, who'd missed nine of his first 10 shots, sank a short, go-ahead jumper for Kansas' only field goal of overtime, and the ninth-ranked Jayhawks escaped the No. 14 Cowboys with a 68-67 win Wednesday night in Stillwater.
"Naadir," Kansas coach Bill Self allowed, "made the biggest play of his life."
And, at least to this point, the biggest shot of Kansas' season.
The Jayhawks (22-4) moved into a first-place tie with Kansas State atop the Big 12, with matching 10-3 league records. But then you get to the fine print: With five league games yet to play, Kansas owns every major tiebreaker over the Wildcats, including a two-game series sweep of their rivals to the west.
Plus, K-State has three more road tilts remaining to Kansas' two, and finishes its regular season at Stillwater against the Cowboys (19-6, 9-4). Which means the Jayhawks, written off two weeks ago, are back in the driver's seat for a ninth straight conference title.
"Our whole focus is just to win the Big 12," senior guard Travis Releford told the Associated Press. "Teams beat us. We knew we weren't going to run the table and go undefeated. Unfortunately, it just happened they beat us at home" — on Feb. 2, snapping Kansas' 33-game home win streak. "We were focused to come in and try to get a win."
This one was a grind, from start to finish. As a winter storm approached Gallagher-Iba Arena, things got cold indoors, too: The two league heavyweights shot a combined 5-of-32 from beyond the arc, and missed 10 free throws each. The Jayhawks turned it over 16 times and managed just five assists for the evening — and Tharpe accounted for three of them.
On the whole, it felt more like a 15-round fight than an instant classic. Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson fouled out. So did his counterpart, Marcus Smart. Kansas was a combined 1-of-8 from the floor in the overtime periods. Tired legs ruled the night.
It was ugly. It was beautiful.
Sixteen ties, nearly two-dozen lead changes. The last came when Tharpe curled around Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte in the lane and rainbowed a floater over the outstretched arms of the defense.
"That was a tough win for us," Self told reporters afterward. "Guys showed a lot of heart."
A lot of guts, too. Wednesday wasn't an offensive masterpiece, by any stretch of the imagination. Tharpe was all over the place until his game-winner, and the offense appeared to stagnate after Johnson fouled out with 2:35 left in the first extra session. Meanwhile, freshman wing man Ben McLemore, save for a quick burst midway through the second half, seemed to disappear, finishing with a season-low seven points.
Instead, the Jayhawks went, as they have all season, as their seniors went. After struggling mightily against Smart in the first matchup, Johnson rebounded with a 10-point effort in the rematch. Forward Kevin Young (8 points, 11 rebounds) snared almost every loose ball within his reach, and center Jeff Withey provided a steady hand (17 points, 14 boards, 11 free-throw makes) late in the game.
And Releford's rebound of Markel Brown's misfire on the final possession allowed Kansas to run out the clock. The Kansas City native finished with a team-best 18 points, his third straight game in double digits.
While most of the KU faithful have focused on Johnson's struggles earlier this month, the Jayhawks' fortunes also have been closely tied to Releford's mojo. During the Jayhawks' three-game winning streak, the senior guard has averaged 14.3 points. In the jaw-dropping three-game skid that preceded it, he averaged only 5.7.
"We knew it was going to be a tough match," Releford told reporters. "With the crowd on their side and them being at home, we just knew we had to come out and just tough it out, and we did."
This isn't Self's best team. Or his sexiest. But it just might be the toughest.
"That's not going to be one that we make an offensive tape to try to sell," the coach said. "But God, what a win."
Which makes it official: After a short detour south, the road to the Big 12 title is running through Lawrence again. As if the guys working the snow plows this week didn't have enough on their plates.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com