This was after a timeout, so you’d expect Kansas’ players to be focused. It was close, so you’d assume the Jayhawks — 13-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer — to be at their best.
With KU up by three and 18.3 seconds remaining, coach Bill Self drew up a baseline out-of-bounds play designed to get Frank Mason the ball.
There was one problem. Lagerald Vick ran the wrong way.
“He was supposed to go to the other side and clear the side for Frank,” Self said. “Fortunately for us, he didn’t listen very good.”
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The question that comes up often — and still will be brought up following KU’s 90-85 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday — remains: Can the Jayhawks’ late-game magic continue into the NCAA Tournament?
By now, most understand that this KU team has been remarkable in close games. It’s won before with scouting report defense and Mason freelance drives and big-man hustle plays, and yet, it’s difficult to rationalize that those things are controllable at the end of every tight game.
Yet KU did it again Saturday. The Jayhawks closed when they needed to. They made the big play at the end.
And this time it was Josh Jackson executing a pass he wasn’t expected to throw.
Mason broke toward the inbounding Jackson late, mostly because Vick ended up directly in his path. With the teams’ players converging, Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans and Jeffrey Carroll both briefly cut toward Mason.
And Jackson, who shouldn’t have even been looking at Vick, somehow sensed that he was wide open, lifting the ball above his head to deliver a baseball pass to his teammate near mid-court.
“In basketball you’ve got to react when something happens,” KU guard Devonté Graham said, “so he just reacted and made a good play.”
Vick did the rest, driving aggressively to the basket for a layup to put the game out of reach.
Still, it was Jackson’s calm during the chaos that was the biggest part of securing the victory.
“He’s probably our best passer on our team,” Self said. “He’s got great vision.”
Mason played great Saturday, and he’ll steal the headlines as he moves closer to securing national player of the year.
Jackson, though, played the role of KU closer on Saturday. Not only did he deliver the game’s best pass, but he also made the game’s biggest shot according to Self — a three from the corner that pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to six when the Cowboys were threatening.
So will KU’s fortune last into March? It’s impossible to say. The Jayhawks were good in this area last year too, going 15-1 in games decided by 10 or less before a 64-59 loss to Villanova in the Elite Eight.
Someone has to win close ones, though, and the Jayhawks have proven repeatedly that they aren’t likely to get rattled during the game’s most important moments.
That doesn’t guarantee success. But it also isn’t a bad quality to have.
Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell