Naadir Tharpe pushed through a doorway, emerging into a front lobby at Gallagher-Iba Arena. The time pushed past 11:30 p.m on Wednesday night. Decked out in a sweat suit and a backward hat, he carried a large pizza in one arm and tried to maneuver through a crowd of fans.
He didn’t make it far. A young girl wanted a photo. The pizza would have to wait.
Nearly 30 minutes earlier, Tharpe had swished an off-balance jumper with 16.5 seconds left, helping the ninth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks escape town with a hard-earned 68-67 victory over No. 14 Oklahoma State in double overtime.
The victory had pulled Kansas (22-4 and 10-3 in the Big 12) even with Kansas State atop the Big 12 standings, and avenged a home loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse. It was also just prologue for this postgame scene, away from the stunned silence of a packed arena.
“That’s the biggest play you’ve ever made in your life,” Kansas coach Bill Self would say, standing in front of his reserve point guard.
“And it was,” Self would say later.
By the end, Tharpe’s shot was the decisive moment in a night full of drama, a game that struck the balance of epic and ugly. There had been 23 lead changes and 16 ties, marquee players fouling out, and title implications on the line. It was, in the instant sense, a Big 12 classic.
“It’s a huge win for conference implications,” Self said. “I really thought that Oklahoma State had the best path. And for us … I’m not saying we couldn’t have won it.
“Maybe (we) could have got a piece of it with some help. But now, we still probably have the toughest road, but we’re still in the game.”
The teams had played even for the first half — 26-26 — and then again in the second. Oklahoma State had a chance to win it on the last play of a regulation, but freshman guard Marcus Smart was stone-walled by KU center Jeff Withey on a high ball screen. Kansas then had a chance to win it at the end of the first overtime, but senior Travis Releford couldn’t convert on a driving runner.
Then came the second overtime. KU senior guard Elijah Johnson had fouled out, and Smart (16 points) would soon join him on the sideline with five fouls.
If the Jayhawks were winning, they’re going to ride with Tharpe, a sophomore guard who had hit just one of his first 10 shots. Kansas had also not made a field goal in either of the overtimes, and leading scorer Ben McLemore could not get open, now they were down 67-66 with the clock inside 30 seconds.
“We didn’t really have anything going,” Self said.
The Jayhawks called “flat,” a play to clear the lane and isolate one guard at the top of the key.
“It’s usually not Naadir,” Self said.
With the clock counting down inside 20, Tharpe moved to his left, before spinning back toward his right on defender Phil Forte. He needed one more dribble, but he already had the space.
“I missed some easy shots early in the game,” Tharpe said,” and just as soon as I went up … in my hand, I felt it was good.”
Moments later, Oklahoma State’s Markel Brown missed a jumper on the other end, and Releford, who finished with a game-high 18 points, made a smart play to shovel the ball back down court as the buzzer sounded.
“He made a ton of heads-up plays,” Self said
If the prevailing attitude around the country is that the Big 12 is down this season — an idea Self wholly disputes — this night was supposed to reject that sentiment. This was a battle of top-15 teams, speckled with future first-round picks, played in a venue that touts its history in big black lettering: Historic Gallagher-Iba Arena.
There’s still high-level basketball being played in Middle America, even if it can be slow, and physical, and muddy. It certainly was a difference scene from the Jayhawks’ loss to Oklahoma State in Lawrence.
That was a beautiful affair, a back-and-forth day punctuated with celebratory back flips from Smart on Naismith Court. The Jayhawks, including Releford, made it clear earlier this week that the back flip didn’t exactly sit right. And Self was clear that the Jayhawks should come to Stillwater with payback on their minds.
“They got us at home,” said McLemore, who was limited to just seven points on three-of-12 shooting. “And we got them at home. So it’s a great win on the road.”
When it was over, Tharpe walked slowly through the lobby at Gallagher-Iba. The Jayhawks were hustling to beat the impending winter storm that was set to rock the Midwest. But Tharpe stopped for a moment, an unassuming figure amongst the crowd.
“A lot of people tell me it’s a big-time shot,” Tharpe said. “I’m still disappointed in previous plays. But at the end of the day, we won the game. That’s what we came here to do.”