Kansas’ Joel Embiid wowed them again, and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart got more from a terrible shooting game than any college player could. Both nearly posted triple doubles.
The Cowboys’ Markel Brown and Phil Forte brought the best of their dead-eye selves, and the Jayhawks’ Jamari Traylor squeezed more production from his minutes than any other big game of his career.
But the biggest difference-maker in Kansas’ 80-78 victory/escape over Oklahoma State on Saturday was none of them.
KU point guard Naadir Tharpe was good early and dependable late. His production flowed steady, and his confidence never wavered.
There were no career bests for Tharpe, and his occasional bad-pass habit continued. But without Tharpe, Oklahoma State, which made two major second-half charges to turn the final minutes into a nail-biter, would have prevailed for the second time at Allen Fieldhouse in two years.
Tharpe provided huge moments for KU, and one reason the Jayhawks saw an 11-point lead melt to two in the final 4 minutes was because he didn’t shoot enough.
About the only positives for Kansas down the stretch were created by Tharpe. He scored six of the team’s final seven points, and delivered what at the time was thought to be a dagger, a jumper with 36 seconds remaining that gave KU a six-point lead.
At that point, it seemed as if it were Tharpe alone holding off a Cowboys stampede. About everything else trended toward Oklahoma State. Wayne Selden’s swinging elbow bought him a technical. Embiid, marvelous again with 13 points, 11 boards and eight blocks, clanked the front end of a bonus.
Frank Mason made a big free throw, but his late miss with 5.4 seconds remaining left the Cowboys with enough time to pull a heist for the ages. Mason made the play there, slapping the ball from Le’Bryan Nash before he could get off a buzzer-beater.
But the Kansas effort had shrunk to one player, and Tharpe was player enough to get the Jayhawks through on an especially happy day with his mother, Lori, in the building to watch her son play in a college game for the first time.
“Naadir played great. He should have taken more shots,” Kansas coach Bill Self said for perhaps the first time in Tharpe’s three years in Lawrence.
But that’s right. On a few occasions, Tharpe passed up open looks, and at times the offense didn’t move crisply enough. Some of that was Oklahoma State’s small and quick defense that excelled at filling passing lanes, but Tharpe also continues his adjustment as a first-year starting point guard.
Embiid, Selden, Perry Ellis and Andrew Wiggins are the stars, and only Embiid from that group earned a star for his play Saturday. Tharpe is the team’s essential component, and he embraces the role.
“I have to be the leader,” Tharpe said. “These guys haven’t played in games like this. They don’t really know how much it really means. I have.”
Tharpe got to apply those lessons late, when he encouraged Selden to clear his mind after the technical foul. After the game, he kidded with and put his arm around Embiid when the big fellow attempted to respond to a question about his game.
Traylor spoke of the encouragement he receives from Tharpe during practice, so when Tharpe drove and kicked it to Traylor at the free-throw line, the power forward dropped it in.
“He gives me confidence,” Traylor said.
This marks two straight games over 20 points for Tharpe, after Monday’s 23-point performance at Iowa State. That’s a career-first. The assists are accumulating — he’s up to 5.3 per game —and confidence is soaring.
All of this from a player who lost his starting job for a spell in December. Tharpe wasn’t making enough happen, for himself and teammates, and Self wanted to explore Mason at the point. The Jayhawks dropped those games at Colorado and Florida, and Tharpe was back in the lineup.
His scoring average in four Big 12 games is 16.3 points, and he’s made half of his three-point attempts. The best statistic: Kansas is 4-0 in conference play. And that’s why Self, after finding some nits to pick in Tharpe’s game, circled back to his original thought.
“Sometimes you scratch your heads with some of the decisions,” Self said. “But every time they got really close, he had an answer.”
As a point guard should.