First, there was a sly smile. Then raised eyebrows, then full-out laughter, like Andrew Wiggins could not believe what he was doing.
It was nearly 20 minutes after No. 8 Kansas’ 64-63 victory over Texas Tech on Tuesday night. It was after Wiggins had scooped up a loose ball and finished the first game-winning shot of his career, after Texas Tech had missed a desperation half-court shot at the buzzer and after freshman Wayne Selden Jr. had swallowed up Wiggins in a Vise-Grips bear hug inside a stunned United Spirit Arena.
Now Wiggins was sitting in front of a room full of people, trying to explain that freshman Joel Embiid’s fumble in the final seconds was actually a well-timed assist.
“My heart was just racing,” Wiggins said. “We give the ball to JoJo, one of our best scorers, and he delivered a great pass.”
Wait a minute, Andrew. That was a pass?
“He found me,” Wiggins said
“I lost the ball,” Embiid confessed, nearly ruining the bit. “And I think it was a pass.”
This was Kansas after a moment of survival, after two freshman had carried the Jayhawks to a victory in the final seconds. For the most of the season, it seemed like Kansas had been the team that watched the final basket go in. Villanova landed a dagger in the final seconds in the Bahamas. Colorado hit a running 30-footer at the buzzer.
On Tuesday, Wiggins and Kansas had their moment. They erased a four-point deficit in the final minutes. They improved to 20-6 on the season and 11-2 in the Big 12, stretching their conference lead to a full two games after Texas had lost on Tuesday at Iowa State.
“We were lucky,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
In some ways, he was right. In the final minutes, Kansas and Texas Tech kept trading baskets. Selden hit a three-pointer that cut the KU deficit to 59-58 with 2:35 left. And two minutes later, after a rare defensive stop, the Jayhawks took a 62-61 lead after Embiid picked up a loose-ball rebound and threw down a two-handed slam.
But Texas Tech’s Robert Turner hit two free throws on the other end, and Bill Self called timeout with 12 seconds left. The play was familiar, a four-up screen designed to get the ball to Perry Ellis, who had spent most of the night in foul trouble.
“They kind of hedged it real hard,” Ellis said.
The paint was walled off, so Ellis went to option two: Embiid down on the block. But as Embiid began to spin, the ball was slapped loose. Wiggins crashed in at just the right moment.
In most cases, Wiggins said, he would have dunked it. But he wanted to be sure.
“The ball slipped, it was slippery,” Wiggins said. “It slipped on the way up, so I just tried to guide it in.”
For years, United Spirit Arena has been like a Kansas house of horrors that’s a lot more frightening than it should be. Entering Tuesday, the Jayhawks were just 5-3 here in eight trips to Lubbock. Some of those losses came when Bob Knight was putting together NCAA tourney teams and building interest in the program. But in most cases, the formula has been pretty familiar: an inferior Red Raider squad will hit some threes, Kansas will play lackluster defense and you know what happens next.
In a Big 12 circuit with deafening atmospheres and wild scenes, the rather cozy confines of this 15-year-old building have often provided some curious losses.
So it was on Tuesday night. The Red Raiders, of course, had won three of four in the Big 12. And first-year coach Tubby Smith had made basketball fun again in Lubbock.
But this was a familiar feeling for Kansas.
The tempo was DMV-waiting-room slow, much to Smith and Texas Tech’s liking. And the Jayhawks were plagued by the same old road problems. They couldn’t piece together the stops on defense. But they made enough plays to win.
“We battled; we fought hard,” Selden said. “We felt like we deserved it. There’s been so many games that have come down to that last possession and we weren’t able to come through with it.”
Wiggins finished with 19 points and six rebounds, while Embiid had 18 points and eight rebounds after sitting out the last week while recovering from back and knee injuries.
“My knee is fine,” Embiid said. “I’m back 100 percent, so my back is fine. So I think it helped me.”
It could have been so different, of course. One bounce here, one bounce there. But as Self stepped into a hallway after the game, he felt pretty healthy, too. For a moment, his mind wandered toward Saturday's showdown against Texas at Allen Fieldhouse. Maybe it made sense. How had Kansas won on Tuesday? That was still kind of a blur.
“I don’t know what happened,” Self said. “But obviously the ball was loose. We were lucky.”