Frank Mason exited the Kansas locker room on late Monday night, shortly after 11:31 p.m., not yet an hour after a three-overtime classic had left its mark on this old barn.
This was after No. 1 Kansas had outlasted No. 2 Oklahoma 109-106 in the first 1-vs.-2 matchup in Big 12 history, after Mason had clinched the game with a steal in the final seconds, and after a collection of KU fans had hung around the bleachers inside Allen Fieldhouse to offer a standing ovation for an opposing star. Mason, a 5-foot-11 guard, stood barefoot, inched across a hallway and pushed slowly through a doorway into the building’s media room.
As an onlooker pointed to his bare feet, Mason responded with a nod.
“No shoes,” he said.
This was the aftermath of a classic, a survival contest in a basketball cathedral, the sort of game that hangs in that murky, undefined layer of instant history. When it was over, Kansas coach Bill Self stood in the locker room and told his players that they needed to be proud. It really didn’t matter who had won, he said. They had all been part of something special.
“If we would have lost the game, I would have walked in the locker room and said: ‘Well, you’ll never forget this one. Be proud that you were a part of it,’ ” Self said.
When it was over, Kansas was 13-1 and 2-0 in the Big 12, handing Oklahoma its first loss. Hours after ascending to the top of the AP Poll for the first time since February 2011, the Jayhawks could make a claim as college basketball’s rightful No. 1.
When it was over, Kansas' pint-sized savior sat in a chair, letting his feet cool off.
“Craziest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Mason said.
Nearly an hour earlier, those same feet had stood three feet from the Allen Fieldhouse sideline. There were 12 seconds remaining in the third overtime. Kansas led 107-106. The game had been barreling into the night for nearly three hours. Oklahoma had missed a free throw to win the game at the end of regulation. The Jayhawks' Wayne Selden missed a wide-open three-pointer at the end of the first overtime. Sooners' senior guard Buddy Hield stood on the sideline, ready to in-bound the ball.
As Mason stood there, an official warned him to back off the line. Mason listened, complying for a moment, until the official handed Hield the ball. Then Mason pounced.
“After he handed the ball in, there’s nothing he can do,” Mason said. “So I took a step closer. I went all out.”
There really was nothing left to try. So Mason did what he had been coached to do. For 55 minutes of basketball, Kansas and Oklahoma had traded baskets and runs, exchanging haymaker after haymaker, a heavyweight fight unfolding between two high-octane offenses. For most of the second half and for three overtimes, Mason had chased Hield around ball screens, covering him like a shadow.
In 54 total minutes, Hield had been relentless. He finished with 46 points, matching K-State’s Mike Wroblewski (1962) for the most ever by an opposing player inside Allen Fieldhouse. And he had needed only 23 shots, hitting eight of 15 from three-point range.
“We actually did a really good job holding him to 46,” Self said.
Hield entered Monday averaging 24.7 points per game, and the KU game plan called for Selden to draw the arduous defensive assignment. In the locker room at halftime, after Kansas had squandered an 11-point lead and trailed 44-40, after Hield had scored 22 points in the first half, Mason spoke up. Selden had picked up two fouls. Sophomore Devonte’ Graham was having trouble checking Hield. Mason wanted the challenge.
“The person that was left was me,” Mason would say.
“He’s a pitbull,” Self would say.
Of course, there really was no stopping Hield on Monday night. But Mason sought the assignment. He chased, and he grappled and he jockeyed for position, trying to keep a hand in Hield’s face. Nothing seemed to work. Hield kept hitting tough shots, and he kept finding open shots on offensive rebounds. The sight of Hield lighting up Allen Fieldhouse caused Self to think back to Kevin Durant, the former Texas star who had hit Kansas with 25 points during the first half of a 32-point performance in 2007.
"He could have got 60 if Frank wasn't guarding him,” Self said.
So, yes, there was really nothing left to try. Hield stood on the sideline, ready to in-bound the ball. Mason thought back to practice here inside Allen Fieldhouse, where the Kansas staff spends time each season emphasizing these situations.
“In Allen Fieldhouse, there’s no room on the side,” Self would say. “So guys can’t back up. So we try to make an emphasis on out-of-bounds, to try to steal it. And we were dead exhausted, I’m shocked that we were able to do it.”
As Hield threw the in-bounds pass, Mason got his left hand on the ball. It bounced a few feet away. He pounced again. Mason drew a foul and converted two free throws. Hield missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer. Allen Fieldhouse reveled in the moment.
“We beat a team that could win the national championship,” Self said.
"Just heart," said senior forward Perry Ellis, who finished with a team-high 27 points in 53 minutes. "All of us, together."
In the aftermath of classic, nobody seemed quite sure how to act. It was Jan. 4, of course, and the results of Monday night will mean little in March — apart, perhaps, for some NCAA seeding resumes. There will also be a rematch in Norman, Okla., on Feb. 13. Hield was ready for that.
“I want it bad,” he said.
But first, there was Monday, the longest game in Allen Fieldhouse history, the first regular-season triple-overtime game between teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger called it the best game of which he ever has been a part. ("Other than the result, of course.”) Self compared it to the Jayhawks’ come-from-behind victory in the final Border War in 2012. Hield spent part of his postgame doing an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter — after a loss. How often do you see that?
“January 4th is too early to be having games like this,” Self said.
As Hield concluded his interview on the Allen Fieldhouse floor, a group of Kansas fans, sitting in the bleachers behind him, rose to their feet and applauded. That was Monday night inside Allen Fieldhouse, Self said. The kind of game you don’t want to end — even if you really do.
“He said: ‘This will be a game that you never want to end,” said Graham, remembering Self’s pregame speech. “Then it ended up going into three overtimes, and then we actually wanted it to end.”
Finally, there was Mason, sitting amidst a crowd of reporters after playing 53 of 55 minutes. All around him, people were exhausted. Players and coaches and school officials. Mason was still barefoot, and he did not wish to put his shoes back on. But as he inched back to the locker room, he was not necessarily ready to go home, either.
“I’m good,” he said. “I could play an extra two or three overtimes right now."