Perry Ellis was sprinting down the court, like a wide receiver on a fly route. It was the final seconds on Monday night. The final chance. There were 3.9 seconds on the clock.
West Virginia had just gone up one point on a driving layup by Juwan Staten. With no time to waste, Kansas’ Jamari Traylor stepped out of bounds and fired a perfect full-court pass. Ellis was running, and he had a step on two West Virginia defenders. All at once, the play came together: Player, basketball and basket. Ellis jumped into the air, rising toward the rim, but his layup attempt clanked off the iron.
No. 23 West Virginia 62, No. 8 Kansas 61.
“I may have rushed it a little bit,” Ellis would say. “But I should have made it.”
In seconds, the Jayhawks had dropped to 21-5 overall and 10-3 in the Big 12 Conference, allowing a five-point lead to slip away in the final 3 minutes. As the buzzer sounded, Ellis sat on the baseline, his arms on his knees as the West Virginia student section rushed the floor.
For Kansas, this was shock. The Jayhawks had two opportunities to extend a one-point lead in the final minute. They had led by as many as six in the second half. For Kansas coach Bill Self, it may have been the most frustrating loss of the year. In the huddle before West Virginia’s final play, the message was simple. Switch every screen and don’t let Staten escape behind the defense. In the final moments, Staten got behind.
“He made a nice play, but we couldn’t defend it worse,” Self said. “A situation like that, you got to keep the ball in front of you, and it’s my fault. I told Jamari (Traylor) to try and deny him with Frank (Mason), and he got behind Jamari and he got behind Frank.”
As Kansas looked poised to grind out a victory in the final minutes, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter hit back-to-back three-pointers, giving the Mountaineers a 60-59 lead with 2:27 left. But Mason responded with a driving layup on the next possession, putting the Jayhawks back ahead 61-60.
The Jayhawks had an opportunity to extend the lead with 57 seconds left, but sophomore forward Landen Lucas missed the front end of a one-and-one. Kansas came up with a stop on the other end, but West Virginia coach Bob Huggins elected to play defense, and Mason missed a driving layup that would have extended the lead to three points.
That set up the final moments. One West Virginia possession with 8.3 seconds on the clock.
“We were going to switch everything,” Self said, “and you got to keep the ball in front of you, and we did a crap job of that.”
Once again, the Jayhawks’ three-point prowess was the key to a near victory. The Jayhawks opened the second half with a 10-0 run and extended their lead to 49-43 after drilling their first five three-point attempts of the half.
West Virginia, though, would hang in the game by dominating on the offensive glass, stealing extra possessions against Kansas’ front line.
While the Mountaineers pounded the boards, Kansas freshman forward Cliff Alexander sat on the Jayhawks’ bench, his warmup top still on. Alexander, one of Kansas’ best per-minute rebounders, had just one board and zero points in 6 minutes during the first half. He didn’t play in the second. Self, apparently displeased with Alexander’s effort, decided to go with Lucas and Traylor alongside Ellis in the frontcourt.
“The game was too much for him,” Self said. “We thought that it would be tough for Cliff, them trapping him and passing out of it. (West Virginia’s Devin) Williams got what he wanted off of him early … but we were better against pressure, without question, with Jamari and Landen in there.”
For the third straight game, Kansas was hampered by a slow start. This time, the Jayhawks simply looked lethargic. While an evening snowstorm created a half-full atmosphere at WVU Coliseum, West Virginia built a 17-8 lead despite shooting just 35 percent in the opening 9 minutes. Earlier in the day, on the weekly Big 12 teleconference, Self stated that this would be a game that his players would be “excited” to play in. For the opening 10 minutes, it didn’t look like that.
The Jayhawks appeared discombobulated against the Mountaineers’ “Press Virginia” style. The Jayhawks, who finished with 14 turnovers, turned the ball over six times in the opening 9 minutes, and West Virginia pulled down eight offensive rebounds during the same stretch. The Mountaineers would finish with 22 offensive rebounds.
“That’s the reason we lost,” freshman guard Devonte’ Graham said.
The Jayhawks, of course, settled down, trailing just 33-30 at halftime before building a five-point lead with more than 3 minutes to go. They had an opportunity to finish the game, and even when that vanished on a busted defensive play, Ellis had one final layup to salvage a night in West Virginia.
That, too, came up empty.
“I just missed it,” Ellis said.