The boxes of Big 12 championship T-shirts were left unopened in the Kansas locker room, still crisp and clean among a room of frustrated players and coaches. There were hats, too. And somewhere, a 10th straight Big 12 championship trophy was hidden in another box.
In the moments after No. 5 Kansas’ 72-65 loss to Oklahoma State at Gallagher-Iba Arena, KU coach Bill Self retreated back to the locker room and was forced to make a decision. Break out the memorabilia and celebrate an outright conference championship — or pack up the boxes and head back to Lawrence without a party.
“I told them put them under the (darn) bus,” Self said. “Because to me, we missed our opportunity to celebrate.”
Hours earlier, of course, Kansas had won a 10th straight Big 12 title outright when Kansas State handled Iowa State in Manhattan. No matter what happened on Saturday, Kansas would have at least a three-game conference lead with two games to play. But after coughing up a 10-point lead in the second half and committing 22 turnovers, it just didn’t feel right to feel satisfied.
“Not right now,” KU freshman guard Wayne Selden said.
“You can’t celebrate after a loss,” said junior guard Naadir Tharpe, who carried a bag of ice on his hand after dislocating his thumb in the second half.
Nearly 30 minutes earlier, in the final moments of regulation, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart stopped for a moment near the Kansas bench and started nodding his head. He clapped once, then again, savoring the moment as a group of shell-shocked Kansas Jayhawks looked on.
There was not much reaction. Just quiet. Kansas had led 52-42 with fewer than 11 minutes left. And now the lead was gone. Smart had taken control of the game in the final minutes. KU freshman center Joel Embiid was favoring his back after another tweak in the second half. And the Oklahoma State students were preparing to flood orange T-shirts all over the Gallagher-Iba floor.
“It’s frustrating to me because we had the game where we wanted it,” Self said, “and then didn’t make competitive plays down the stretch.”
Tharpe’s thumb should be fine, but after the game, Self didn’t have much more specific information on Embiid, who has battled back issues for the bulk of Big 12 play. And really, his health felt just as important as Saturday’s loss.
Smart had 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. For Oklahoma State, it was a statement victory in a late-season push for an NCAA Tournament berth.
But what did this loss really mean for Kansas? Maybe it hurt the Jayhawks’ resume for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That’s seven losses now, a lot of setbacks even for a team that’s played the best schedule in the country. Maybe it was a confidence-tester on the first day of March. But beyond that, what did it really mean?
“We just have to let it go,” said Tharpe, who had six points and six turnovers while shooting just two of eight from the floor. “We just have to continue to play and focus on the next part of the season, because we know that’s what is important.”
In the opening minutes of Saturday’s matchup, the most interesting development of the night occurred nearly 260 miles away in Manhattan, where Kansas State took down Iowa State. As the Jayhawks exited the first media timeout, they had unwittingly become outright Big 12 champions.
“We didn’t know,” Tharpe said.
So on the whole, Oklahoma State had more to gain on Saturday night. The Cowboys were the team on the NCAA bubble, still looking for some kind of statement victory. The Jayhawks, who dropped to 22-7 and 13-3 in the Big 12, were just trying to pad their overall resume for a No. 1 seed.
So this was the backdrop, the context for the night. Wiggins finished five of 16 shooting with six turnovers, but he still might be the Big 12 player of the year if KU finishes the season strong.
The Jayhawks felt some sadness on Saturday, but all their same goals are still alive.
“It’s pretty good for our kids to have a three-game lead with two games left,” Self said. “They played their butts off for the most part all conference season long. They’ve left little doubt with who is going to be the league champion. But still yet, we’ve had a couple outings where we haven’t performed very well.”