In the moments after Kansas’ 81-58 loss to Baylor on Saturday, Bears coach Scott Drew played court jester. He grabbed the microphone near midcourt and invited the Baylor students down to the floor of the Ferrell Center for a delayed court-storming.
The Jayhawks had left the floor, slowly walking back to the locker room. And senior guard Elijah Johnson was left wordless and solemn, answering a series of postgame questions with what amounted to head nods, shakes and one-word answers:
“Unexpected,” Johnson said.
This was the scene from the Jayhawks’ ninth straight Big 12 regular-season title, perhaps the saddest and most conflicted celebration of KU’s astonishing streak.
Hours earlier, on Saturday afternoon, the Jayhawks had clinched a share of the crown when in-state rival Kansas State dropped its regular-season finale at Oklahoma State. When the result came in, Jeff Withey’s phone lit up with a few text messages. He hadn’t watched the game. But now he knew.
The Jayhawks were champs again — and they’d be the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center. But after a confounding loss against Baylor — an underachieving outfit that hadn’t beat a top-five team in the Big 12 since January — the Jayhawks weren’t sure how to respond.
“It doesn’t feel like we won it at all,” said Withey, who finished with eight points and four blocks while attempting just three field goals.
This was supposed to be the icing on the trophy, the chance to play loose and avoid a championship share with an in-state rival. But the Jayhawks, who finished the regular season 26-5 and 14-4, couldn’t close the deal. Instead, they watched Baylor’s Pierre Jackson record his own senior-day moment with 28 points and 10 assists. And they watched Bears forward Cory Jefferson finish with 25 points and seven rebounds.
How good were Jackson and Jefferson? Consider this: They combined to shoot 22 of 26 from the field, while the rest of the Baylor roster made just eight of 26.
“Two players,” KU coach Bill Self said, “probably played about as well as any two players have played against us in a long, long time.”
Jefferson, a junior power forward, had entered the day zero for seven from three-point range for his career. More jarring: he had taken just four three-pointers all season, all presumably clanking off the iron. But Jefferson’s first two three-pointers went down as Baylor shot 57 percent in the first half.
When his third three-pointer went down, pushing Baylor’s lead to 46-34 early in the second half, Self turned to his assistant coaches and smiled.
Isaiah Austin, Baylor’s 7-foot-1 center, was supposed to be the big man that could pull Kansas’ defenders from the basket. Jefferson for three? That wasn’t in the scouting report.
“He hadn’t made a three in his career,” Self said, “So, (heck) no.”
The Jayhawks had suffered an early blow inside when senior Kevin Young, who would go scoreless, picked up two quick fouls. But Withey was the one who drew Jefferson on defense, and Withey figured he had some insider knowledge. He had once played with Jefferson on an overseas summer tour, and Withey came away with a pretty clear conclusion:
“We knew he could dunk,” Withey said.
The Jayhawks, of course, still had opportunities in the second half. After falling behind 61-44, freshman Perry Ellis sparked an 11-0 run, and it looked like the Jayhawks might pull off one final Houdini act. But Baylor, a team playing for its NCAA Tournament life, rolled off six straight points and finished the game on a 20-3 run.
Afterward, Self was asked if the timing of K-State’s loss may have caused a slight letdown. For weeks, the Jayhawks had played with their backs against the wall, needing victories to keep the Big 12 title streak alive. They survived at Oklahoma State, took down Iowa State in Ames, and rolled off seven straight wins.
“We knew we had a piece of it before we came over here,” Self said, “And I’ll be candid with you: I was excited that I knew that we got a piece. And I thought we’d play better because we knew we did.”
Withey echoed those sentiments, saying the Jayhawks had talked about taking the title outright in the locker room before the game.
“Maybe we thought that it was ours already,” Withey said, “and Baylor came and beat us up.”
Now the Jayhawks can move on. KU’s case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament certainly took a hit, but it can make up that ground with a solid performance in the Big 12 Tournament, where they’ll play at 2 p.m. on Thursday against either West Virginia or Texas Tech in the quarterfinals.
“Everybody’s starting fresh,” Self said, “and I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t be fresh and excited and confident moving forward.”
This was the scene from KU’s ninth straight title, a begrudgingly satisfied coach and a disappointed locker room. The Jayhawks had set out to collect another Big 12 trophy. And they had. They just never figured it would hurt this bad.
“I’m not happy,” Self said. “But I’m a lot happier than I would be if it’s different, and we finished second. But now we get a chance to go to Kansas City … and see who the best team is.”