Elijah Johnson was smiling. What else could he do? He had just pulled down a rebound, and kicked out a pass to Naadir Tharpe. But wait, the shot clock said just three seconds. And on a crazy, wild, insane night at Hilton Coliseum, Johnson went calling for the ball, hoisting a fade-away three-pointer from close to 25 feet from the basket.
“I blacked out,” Johnson would say.
No, this shot wasn’t going in. It was overtime on Monday night. And the Jayhawks led by four points with 54 seconds left. And the fact they were still playing defied proper description. They had trailed by five with 45 left in regulation, then four with 23 seconds left. There had been a fury of late three-pointers, and some panicky defense, and a mad scramble under the basket that produced a controversial call and two game-tying free throws.
But that had only set up this, a prayer from the fingertips of Elijah Johnson, another miracle against Iowa State. All season long, Johnson had been the guy immune to such luck.
“He’s had such an up-and-down senior year,” Kansas coach Bill Self would say.
But here was the shot, spinning through the air, swishing through the bucket in the final minute of overtime. The Jayhawks now led by seven, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. On a cold night in Iowa, in a place known for its hometown magic, the Jayhawks survived in overtime.
Kansas 108, Iowa State 96.
Johnson, a senior guard, finished with 39 points, the most ever by a Kansas player in the Big 12 era. And Self earned his 500th victory in the most thrilling and Self-ian way possible. Against all odds, on the opponent’s court, with boos and debris raining down as Johnson got a police escort back to the locker room.
“It’s great to win no matter what,” Self said, standing outside the Jayhawks’ locker room. “But it’s always better to win if you have to go through some crap and show some toughness to do it.”
Hours earlier, the Jayhawks had arrived at Hilton Coliseum still tied for first place with Kansas State in the Big 12 standings. But when the ball tipped off just past 8 p.m., the Wildcats had already taken care of Texas Tech and moved to 23-5 and 12-3 in the Big 12, a half-game ahead of Kansas.
KU had also arrived here to make history. Self was still just 40 minutes from his 500th career victory. And the Jayhawks were four wins away from ensuring a ninth straight Big 12 title.
But this was Hilton Coliseum, the birthplace of “Hilton Magic,” and the Cyclones carried a 22-game home-court winning streak into Monday night’s matchup. This is the kind of place where the Cyclones can make 17 three-pointers — they did on Monday — and the kind of place where Iowa State senior Korie Lucious could throw up an alley-oop pass that went in the basket for the Cyclones’ ninth three-pointer.
“They shot the heck out of the ball,” Self would say.
But as another blizzard bears down on the Midwest, the Jayhawks’ dream of nine straight Big 12 titles is alive and well. With three games remaining, Kansas improved to 24-4 overall and 12-3 in the Big 12, keeping pace with Kansas State on top of the conference standings. Miraculous? Maybe.
Kansas senior Kevin Young had another explanation.
“Elijah Johnson,” Young would say. “I don’t think there’s another explanation. He put the team on his back tonight. And he showed his leadership.”
How else do you explain Johnson’s performance, a tour de force after a year of frustration? He finished with six three-pointers, 13-of-22 shooting from the floor. When the Jayhawks needed him most, Johnson was there.
“He was the best guard,” Self said, “the best player in the country tonight.”
From the moment the Jayhawks trailed Iowa State 87-82 with 45 seconds left in regulation, Johnson responded with 20 points in the final 5:30 of the game, including the last eight points of regulation.
The first two buckets came on three-pointers, cutting the lead to 89-88 with 13 seconds left. Lucious then hit one of two free throws on the other end, and Johnson went hard to the basket with six seconds left.
Johnson collided hard with Iowa State freshman Georges Niang, who attempted to draw a charge. And in the ensuing scramble, Niang was called for a foul while Johnson, still on the ground, attempted to kick the ball out to sophomore Naadir Tharpe.
The Cyclones wanted a charge — or at least another no-call when Johnson passed to Tharpe — but Johnson calmly sank two free throws to send the game to overtime.
“I guess I can’t get too far into that call,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg would say. “It is what it is. It happened. You’ve got move past it. I thought George made a heck of a play by stepping in there and drawing contact, but hey, it happens in this game. It didn’t go our way.”
Johnson would add 12 more points in overtime, including his shot-clock beating heave that broke the Cyclones’ back with 54 seconds left in overtime.
“I just rhythm shot it,” Johnson said.
When it was over, and Johnson arrived at the post-game press conference, he cited two conversations on Monday as defining moments. The first came early in the day with Kansas trainer Bill Cowgill. Johnson, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last summer, has struggled to regain some of his old athleticism and bounce this season. Much of the problem, Johnson concedes, has been mental.
It’s taken him some time to realize that he had the knee injury — but he doesn’t anymore.
“Most people cater (to) you and baby you through that,” Johnson said. “And right now, he’s just telling me to ‘man up.’”
The second conversation came in the opening minutes of Monday’s game, when the Jayhawks fell behind 14-7 and Self thought Johnson needed a push.
“I thought he made a couple of bone-head plays early,” Self said, “and I know I went to him and got onto him, and he said ‘Coach, next play. That’s what you always say. Forget it.’
“And I said, whoa-whoa-whoa, I’ll forget it when I finish talking about the last play. That was our way of me getting him to be stubborn and me getting him to be competitive.”
By the end of the night, after Johnson had stamped his name in Kansas lore, he sat in a room inside Hilton Coliseum and said he finally realized what Self was doing. He was challenging him. And he needed it.
“I feel like that kind of sent some fire through my body,” Johnson said.