There were 5 minutes left and Kansas had a chance for a transition slam, the kind of dunk that would have blown the roof off the Sprint Center — and brought a much-needed release from an anxious Jayhawks crowd.
Instead, redshirt freshman Ben McLemore chased after the kick-ahead pass and then went into a slide that took him over the end line.
Coach Bill Self flashed a quizzical look.
Fans near midcourt laughed, chortling, “What is he doing?”
By that time, fears that 16th-seeded Western Kentucky, which led the Jayhawks 31-30 at halftime, had eased, so the fans could have fun with McLemore’s latest (and funniest) miscue.
Kansas would continue to pull away on the way to a 64-57 win, but McLemore’s absence — and the Jayhawks’ sloppy play overall — has to be cause for concern moving forward.
“He’ll take this and he’ll learn from it,” senior forward Kevin Young said. “He’ll contribute more in the next game. … I remember last year and it was the same thing for me. It was just amazing to be there.”
The simple answer is to chalk it up to nerves, a suggestion McLemore shrugged off.
“Coach asked me if I was nervous, but I don’t think it was,” McLemore said. “I was trying to get my head into the game and I guess I was trying to be too focused. I didn’t want to mess up, especially my first time in the NCAA Tournament.”
Still, there is a difference between seeing March Madness and living it.
McLemore witnessed Kansas’ run to the national championship game last season, but this was his first real immersion into March Madness.
“That was a great experience last year,” McLemore said, “so I’d been around March Madness, but I’d never really experienced it. I’m glad we got that out of the way.”
There’s no shame in that, and he’s certainly not the first player to battle butterflies that first waltz onto the national stage, where a player’s legacy ultimately is forged.
It wasn’t a 40-minute struggle. There were a few highlights.
McLemore had a vicious alley-oop dunk off an inbounds play midway through the first half.
All he needed was a cape to complete the super-hero image as he soared above the rim, but those were his only points in the first half.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the last time Kansas led before halftime.
McLemore finished with only 11 points in the game – significantly below his team-leading average (16.4) and inflated by a five late-game free throws when the Hilltoppers were forced to foul.
He did grab six rebounds, which is on par with his performance throughout the season, but McLemore also kicked in four turnovers, which is double his usual number of blunders.
The good news for McLemore is that the Jayhawks survived, advancing to a Sunday showdown with North Carolina — and a shot at redemption.
“I’ll be more aggressive Sunday now that we got this game out of the way,” McLemore said.