LAWRENCE — After the dam had crumbled after the 39-point performance and police escort back to the locker room Elijah Johnson high-stepped through an entryway into the locker room and disappeared into a riotous mass of blue jerseys.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
Johnson had been the last player off the floor after Kansas overtime victory over Iowa State in Ames, and his teammates had bided their time in the visitors locker room, bracing for an unrestrained mob scene.
A moment after Johnson appeared in sight, Bill Self followed right behind, setting a drink down before clapping like a man whod just finished a screening of the film Argo.
I knew our guys liked Elijah, Self said. But I didnt realize how much they respected him and liked him until after the (Iowa State) game. I had never seen a group of guys more happy for one guy than they were for Elijah.
Of course, to get a fuller understanding of this scene, you have to go back to a Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse in early February. On that day, in the moments after Kansas lost 85-80 to Oklahoma State, Self had stated that Kansas didnt have a point guard. Johnson had turned the ball over in the final seconds, clinching KUs second home loss in 104 games. And the turnovers were the least of Johnsons problems.
In his final season on campus, he had gone ice cold.
To see Johnson struggle during the Jayhawks three-game losing streak, any observer would have come away with the same concern: Was KUs senior point guard broken beyond repair?
Before Johnsons historic breakout against Iowa State, he had already shown signs that he was close to emerging from his mid-year slump. He attacked the basket more. He chucked up fewer threes. He worried about the things that Self wanted him to worry about.
But after scoring 20 points in the final 5 minutes, 35 seconds of KUs victory at Hilton Coliseum a performance that Self called the best since hes been at KU the locker room scene served as a passionate funeral for the old Elijah.
I dont see me reverting back, Johnson said. Thats kind of that thing where you know you can do it, now you just gotta continue to try to do it.
The prospect of a swaggering Johnson can certainly help those in Lawrence dream a little bigger. The Jayhawks, 24-4 overall and 12-3 in the Big 12, return to the floor at 1 p.m. Saturday against West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse. And if Johnson is locked in again, he can punish opposing defenses for putting too much focus on freshman guard Ben McLemore and senior center Jeff Withey.
I feel like I can help everybody now that I can stretch the defense, Johnson said.
Last season, Johnson went through a similar phase during conference play. He was averaging just 8.9 points per game through KUs first 31 games before coming alive during the postseason. Johnson scored 15.1 points per game during KUs last eight games, fueling the Jayhawks run to the NCAA championship game.
This season, Johnson appeared to be hampered by some physical issues. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last summer, and he didnt appear to be the same kid that once threw down a between-the-legs dunk during a high school all-star game.
These days, Johnson says hes feeling better. But Self has seen his point guard grow in other areas.
I think hes just learned how to play, Self said. I think hes a much better basketball player than he was when he got here, theres no question about that. You look at all these NBA players; theyre freaky athletic in their first five years in the league, then they become great the next five years in the league because theyve learned the game goes in slow motion; its not in fast-forward anymore.
You see and you feel the game differently. I think hes become one of those guys."
And with just two games left in Allen Fieldhouse, Johnson says it feels like hes right on time for the second straight season. After a magical night in Hilton Coliseum and a locker-room party Johnson can believe in himself again.
Im not used to it being me, Johnson said. So when I came into the locker room, and the team did that, I think the coaching staff saw a side of me they havent seen too many times. I felt good about it. My team made me feel good.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.