The ball swung to the wing, and Andrew Wiggins set his feet. It was the final minutes of Monday night’s game at Allen Fieldhouse, and No. 5 Kansas was minutes away from clinching a share of its 10th straight Big 12 championship.
Ten straight. It’s a dizzying feat in the modern era of college basketball. But in that moment, as the Jayhawks led by just five points, and the anxiety began to grow, nobody was really thinking about the streak. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s safe to say probably everybody inside Allen Fieldhouse was thinking about the number 10.
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In one sense, this was what this whole Wiggins-led experiment was all about. The Jayhawks had lost all five starters off last year’s team, four seniors and a lottery pick. Kansas coach Bill Self had lost his five leading scorers for the first time. It was time for another turnover. So Self simply added the most heralded recruiting class in school history, and now his Jayhawks were going to win another conference title.
“I’m happy a bunch of young kids are growing up,” Self would say.
So there was Wiggins, lining up his feet, stepping into a three-pointer that could give the Jayhawks an eight-point lead and ice the victory with more than 2 minutes left. The shot went down, of course — inside Allen Fieldhouse, they usually do — and KU had its victory.
No. 5 Kansas 83, Oklahoma 75.
“Just winning this whole championship,” Wiggins said. “It was just a great feeling on the court.”
The Jayhawks, 22-6 overall and 13-2 in the Big 12, can clinch the Big 12 championship outright with a victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday. That would be sweeter than sharing, of course. And the Jayhawks have larger goals on the horizon.
“When you win the league, it’s a good year,” Self said. “Now we need to make it a great or special year.”
But for a moment, this was history. Kansas became just the fifth program to win at least 10 straight conference championships. And just the second from a power conference since UCLA won 13 straight Pac-8 and Pac-10 titles in the 1960s and 1970s.
On March 2, 2005, the streak began in earnest in a senior-night victory over K-State. Self clinched his first title at Kansas. Senior forward Wayne Simien savored senior night by speaking for more than 30 minutes after the game. And a core of freshmen that would grow to be seniors on Self’s 2008 NCAA championship team barely played.
“We like to be known as winners,” then-senior guard Aaron Miles said after that game.
On Monday night, it was the latest generation of Jayhawks leading the way. Wiggins finished with 15 points, including 10 in the second half. Junior guard Naadir Tharpe closed out Oklahoma, 20-8 and 9-6, in the final minutes while finishing with 19 points and five assists.
The lane kept opening up, so Tharpe kept driving.
“The last 10 minutes,” Self said. “I think that’s as good as Naadir has played since he’s been here.”
In the moments after the game, Tharpe stood near half-court, waving his arms as the Kansas crowd began to chant, “10 straight! 10 straight!” The crowd stuck around for a party, and Self exited into the Allen Fieldhouse tunnel, flashing all 10 fingers.
“It’s just a beautiful feeling,” Tharpe said.
Just two days earlier, Kansas had flashed its A-game in an 85-54 rout of second-place Texas. The Jayhawks had pieced together their most complete performance of the season, a blend of highlight-driven offense and lockdown defense, and it was easy to imagine Kansas using Monday night as another Big 12 coronation.
The Jayhawks, of course, could only win a share of the title with a victory. But with another home game against Texas Tech coming next week, the Jayhawks didn’t seem to be into the sharing stuff.
Late on Saturday night, Self wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want to concede that Kansas was rolling — not yet, anyway. Just two weeks ago, the Jayhawks couldn’t escape K-State with a victory. And this was still the same team that needed a last-second bucket to win at Texas Tech.
“There’s a lot that needs to happen for us to go on a roll,” Self said.
Fast forward to Monday night. Midway through the second half, Kansas trailed Oklahoma 58-54. The Jayhawks led 42-33 at halftime after a late run in the opening 20 minutes. But now that lead was gone.
Maybe this is what Self meant. For a moment, the Big 12 title streak was on the back-burner. Boos were echoing through Allen Fieldhouse, and the Jayhawks were just looking for a run.
It came in bits and pieces: a bucket from Jamari Traylor, an off-balance jumper from Tharpe. And then Wiggins capped an 11-3 run with an old-fashioned three-point play with 7:12 left.
Once again, Kansas’ freshmen were rising to the moment.
Kansas opened Big 12 Conference play with a gritty 90-83 victory at Oklahoma on Jan. 8. That performance had been a turning point, a sign that the growing pains were close to being over.
Maybe the young Jayhawks could grow up and win another Big 12 Championship. On Monday night, Wiggins’ shot went down, and the Jayhawks pushed the tradition into the future.
“We’ve had so many good players,” Self said. “It’s been a great run. You don’t win unless you have better guys than the other guys and we’ve had better guys.”