This is the rough draft of the first few paragraphs if the Kansas-West Virginia game had ended after 37 minutes.
“To put this in terms meaningful to Kansas, the Jayhawks can beat an NCAA Tournament bubble team when one of its stars is outstanding, as Josh Jackson was at Texas Tech on Saturday, and the rest are so-so.
“But Kansas won’t beat a top-four seed, like West Virginia, when none of its stars, well, star.
“A grand opportunity to open a Big 12 lead was frittered away with the Jayhawks’ xx-xx loss on Monday. “Kansas could have gone to Baylor, a loser on Monday, with a two-game Big 12 lead. Instead, the Bears and now West Virginia stand one game behind KU.”
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Those paragraphs became ashes over the final 3 minutes, and 5 more in overtime, as Kansas pulled off a comeback for the ages. From 14 down with 2:58 remaining, the Jayhawks turned enough frantic plays and the Mountaineers enough boneheaded mistakes to get the game even after 40 minutes. In the additional five, Kansas prevailed 84-80.
The snapshots over the game’s final 8 minutes told the dual stories. With every timeout as Kansas chipped away a little more, the Jayhawks’ reserves sprinted to greet those on the floor, while the Mountaineers trudged to the sideline. West Virginia’s last chance slipped away with the ball through Nathan Adrian’s hands and out of bounds on an uncontested rebound with 12 seconds left in overtime.
Adrian slowly shuffled to the bench with his head down, receiving consoling pats from teammates.
This was clearly an evening of opportunity lost and found that left the Jayhawks not only two games up in the Big 12 race over Baylor, which fell at Texas Tech earlier in the day, but allowed them to push some historical mileposts even farther down the highway.
KU hadn’t lost successive home games since 1989, Roy Williams’ probation-inherited inaugural team. The Jayhawks faced that prospect after falling to Iowa State nine days earlier.
“We said it before the game that we hadn’t lost back-to-back games since before (Bill Self) has been here,” guard Devonté Graham said. “I was definitely thinking about it during the game.”
Also, the Jayhawks hadn’t been swept in the regular season by an opponent since Jamaal Tinsley’s Iowa State team in 2001. The Mountaineers were a few ticks away from planting that flag.
That streak will run to 96 conference series with either a sweep or split in the Self era because there’s nobody remaining on the schedule with a chance to sweep.
After losing to the Mountaineers by 16 earlier and trailing by 14 with 3 minutes remaining in Lawrence, it was going to take a special effort to prevent it from happening this time.
“It probably should have,” Self said. “They were better than us in Morgantown and better than us tonight for a large part of the game.”
But here’s where Self bragged a bit on his team.
“Our guys have a lot of pride,” he said.
And don’t question the Jayhawks’ toughness, at least not to Self. West Virginia played harder and smarter on its way to the big lead late. But what Kansas accomplished after that was the definition of toughness.
“Anybody who says their guys play harder than mine, it’s a ridiculous statement,” Self said. “I’m not saying they play harder. I’m saying nobody completes harder than my guys.”
Down the stretch that undoubtedly was the case. Defensively, the Jayhawks locked down in the final minutes, forcing turnovers. Then shots started falling, especially from Graham. He hadn’t had a prolonged stretch of success this season, but his finishing kick that included four three-pointers in the game’s final 8 minutes was his biggest contribution of the season.
Frank Mason had a rough shooting night, but he hit 16 of 18 free throws. Jackson didn’t follow his Tech performance but managed another double-double.
For 37 minutes those stars were dimmed, seemingly unable to pull the Jayhawks out of a deep hole. The comeback only added to what’s been an unusual season, on and off the court. Legal issues remain. The Star reported the university made a domestic violence finding against Lagerald Vick in January 2016. Vick and Jackson have been linked to a car vandalism investigation. Carlton Bragg Jr. was granted diversion in a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia case.
On the floor, the Jayhawks have amassed a 11-2 Big 12 record and two-game lead on Baylor despite having fewer steals and blocked shots and committing more turnovers than opponents with one of Self’s thinnest rosters.
One area in which Kansas doesn’t come up short is confidence. Winning like the Jayhawks have this season, nail-biter after nail-biter, can only heighten a sense of invincibility.
“We just know what each of us is capable of doing,” Graham said. “And we believe in each other.”