Frank Mason stuck his thumbs into the sides of his jersey and popped the white mesh turned toward the Allen Fieldhouse student section. Wayne Selden jumped in the air and hugged Kelly Oubre. Coach Bill Self reached up to wipe his brow, breathing a sigh of relief.
Moments later, the party was starting, spilling out on the floor, this crazy, improbable party after a comeback that defied most description and logic here on Tuesday night.
“We don’t get scared,” Kansas junior Jamari Traylor would say.
Let’s see here. The Jayhawks trailed by 18 points in the first half. It did not matter. They trailed by eight points with just more than two minutes remaining. It did not matter. The Jayhawks missed all 15 of their three-point attempts and were outrebounded by West Virginia 46-34. It did not matter.
Kansas was not losing to West Virginia, clinching the outright Big 12 regular season title with a 76-69 victory. This old building would not let them lose. And they wouldn’t, either.
“I like our guys,” Self said after the game. “I like how they responded. I like how they didn’t lay down. I like how they kept fighting.”
This was the image from Kansas’ 11th straight regular season conference title. The Jayhawks looked dead, playing the entire second half without leading scorer Perry Ellis, who left the gamewith what was determined to be a sprained knee. (He probably won’t play Saturday at No. 15 Oklahoma.)
Then, suddenly, the Jayhawks were alive, celebrating a title on the Allen Fieldhouse court.
“Wow,” Self said, grabbing a microphone and looking at the fans who filled the stands on senior night. “Are you guys tired?”
In the moments after the game, Self would declare this the best victory he’s had in Allen Fieldhouse. Perhaps it was the moment. He later admitted the Jayhawks’ 19-point comeback against Missouri in the final Border War game in 2012 had momentarily slipped his mind.
“I kind of forgot about the Missouri game,” Self said.
But perhaps there was something more emotional about this night. This was the sort of game that Kansas never loses. Just one night earlier, the Jayhawks had clinched a share of the Big 12 title after Iowa State defeated Oklahoma in Ames. All day on Tuesday, the buildup was palpable.
The Jayhawks entered night with a 23-game home winning streak. The program had notched 32 straight victories on senior night, a stretch that perhaps defies logic as much as the streak of 11 straight titles. Self had lost just nine times in this building in his 12 seasons.
And for moments on Tuesday, it seemed that, yes, Kansas would lose all of these streaks and status symbols.
“It was a joke how poorly we were playing,” Self said.
In overtime, the key moment came Traylor finished an emphatic one-handed slam over a defender with 3 minutes left, giving the Jayhawks a 67-65 lead. Mason pumped his fist. Selden screamed. And the Jayhawks extended the lead to 70-66 on a Mason layup with 1:25 left.
For more than 40 minutes, Mason worked and battled like a heavyweight fighter, finishing with 19 points. He took on West Virginia’s hard-nosed pressure and found an extra gear in overtime. Yes, this is what this felt like — a 12-round prize fight.
“Keep fighting,” Mason would say, “keep believing.”
“I’m worn out,” Self said. “I think all our coaches are.”
KU had stayed alive with an eight-point comeback in the final 2:32 of regulation. After slicing the lead to two points in the final minute, the Jayhawks ran “Chop” — their patented late-game curl play — and freshman guard Devonte’ Graham drew a foul.
Graham drilled both free throws, West Virginia failed to convert in the final seconds, and fans erupted as the Jayhawks survived to force overtime.
“I didn't have any nerves,” Graham said afterward. “I got that ice-water in my veins.”
Weird things were happening, but weird things tend to happen here.
Mason said that in the game’s final minutes he thought about Kansas’ comeback against Memphis in the 2008 NCAA championship game. Mason was not even in high school then, but he knows the story well enough by now. Down nine. Mario Chalmers. A miracle.
“The 2008 team was down with two minutes left,” Mason said. “And they came back and made a run. Little thing like that help us know it’s possible.”
Across the court, Traylor was thinking about all the games he had played in Allen Fieldhouse — those nights where it felt as if Kansas might lose, but then something would start to happen.
“It gets louder and louder, and guys can’t think,” Traylor said. “We just fight back.”
With West Virginia leading 57-49, the Jayhawks scratched back to within 57-55 on a layup by Mason with 44.4 seconds left. Kansas fouled West Virginia’s Devin Williams with about 40 seconds left. Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one, but West Virginia grabbed the rebound. The Jayhawks fouled again, and the Mountaineers made one of two, leading to another layup from Mason on the other end.
The Mountaineers’ lead was 58-57 with 21 seconds left. The Jayhawks fouled Jevon Carter with 18 seconds left, and he converted just one of two free throws. That set the stage for Graham’s free throws.
Early in the second half, Kansas had turned into a MASH unit. Ellis was nowhere to be seen, never returning to the court after halftime. Selden, meanwhile, turned his ankle and headed to the locker room under his own power. The Jayhawks were already playing without freshman forward Cliff Alexander.
If the Jayhawks were to come back from 10 points down in the final 10 minutes, they would do so without their leading scorer and with Selden nursing an injured ankle.
They did so with little-used junior forward Hunter Mickelson playing major minutes and Landen Lucas and Traylor battling to keep West Virginia’s rebounders off the glass. They did so with Oubre relegated to the bench with three fouls for parts of the second half. He eventually fouled out.
“We’re a team that’s got to piece it together, which is fine,” Self said.
The Jayhawks trailed 40-24 at halftime, leaving the crowd momentarily stunned as West Virginia exerted its will on the boards. The Mountaineers outrebounded Kansas 26-11 and built an 18-point lead in the minutes before halftime. Fewer than 24 hours after Kansas clinched a share of the Big 12 regular season title, the fans had shown up for a party — an opportunity to win the title outright. This was not that.
If the first-half score was surprising, it was made even more shocking by the fact that West Virginia was playing without leading scorer Juwan Staten, the preseason Big 12 player of the year, and senior guard Gary Browne. Both were injured.
For the second straight game, Alexander sat out while the NCAA investigated an eligibility issue. One day earlier, Self had expressed hope that the issue could be resolved by , but considering the glacial pace of the NCAA’s enforcement wing, it was all but certain that Alexander would miss Tuesday night’s game.
Like everything else, it did not matter. Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks climbed a ladder and cut down a net. The party was on, another conference title to celebrate, and Self was off to the side, still catching his breath — still trying to figure out what had happened.
“I’m tired,” Self said. “I’m tired. It was a pretty emotional game.”