They came to Baylor as underdogs, this Kansas program that had won 10 straight Big 12 titles and 23 straight conference openers.
For more than a decade, Kansas coach Bill Self has built a program that has never really bothered to think of itself as anybody’s underdog. But that’s what No. 12 Kansas was Wednesday night at the Ferrell Center. As the hunt for an eleventh straight Big 12 title began, the Jayhawks arrived in this central Texas arena as three-point underdogs. Expected to lose.
And until the final seconds, it looked as if that was a distinct possibility. So consider this Kansas’ opening salvo to the rest of the Big 12, a 56-55 victory over No. 21 Baylor on Wednesday night. For Self, some truths never quite die. When the game is close in the final minutes, and the pressure of a road environment begins to weigh heavy, nobody pulls out victories quite like Kansas.
“You may think it’s a pretty good win,” Self said, standing satisfied deep in the Ferrell Center. “But trust me, at the end of the year, this will go down as a really good win.”
How did Kansas win this game? The easy answer, of course, is that the Jayhawks shot 72.7 percent in the second half and erased a 22-18 halftime deficit. Wayne Selden, who was basically silent for 35 minutes, broke loose with seven points in the final minutes. Brannen Greene, who is 17 of 17 from the line this season, made two clutch free throws. Sophomore point guard Frank Mason made his usual plays. Junior Jamari Traylor was a sudden master at dissecting Baylor’s zone, finishing with 13 points, five rebounds and two assists before fouling out with more than 5 minutes left.
“We didn’t play very well as a team collectively,” Self said, “but we had different guys step up and make plays.”
But in the moments after the game, the equation still didn’t feel like it all fit together. The Jayhawks shot just 27.6 percent in the first half. Junior forward Perry Ellis was a no-show. Selden was a half-show. The Bears still had multiple chances to win the final seconds.
Trailing 54-53 in the final minutes, Baylor nearly took the lead on a transition run-out after a missed three-pointer from Mason and a mad scramble for a loose ball. But Baylor’s Royce O’Neale missed a layup, and big-man Rico Gathers missed a tip-in with 13 seconds left.
The ball stayed with Baylor, but Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre, who had just been subbed in for defense, used his 7-foot-1 wingspan to force a turnover on the ensuing possession. For a split second, it appeared that Gathers had flashed open near the basket, but the ball belonged to Kansas.
“That was big-time,” Greene said. “That was the play of the game.”
Greenecalmly made both ends of a one-and-one, and with a 56-33 lead, Self elected to foul on the next possession. On most occasions, Self said, he has a simple formula for fouling when up three points. Under 5 seconds, you foul. Otherwise, you don’t. The Jayhawks fouled with exactly 5 seconds left.
“We rolled the dice,” Self said. “We played the percentages, and we really got lucky.”
Baylor point guard Kenny Chery, who finished with a game-high 25 points, made both free throws, and Baylor fouled Mason with 3.9 seconds left. Mason missed, but Kansas lived when the Bears failed to get a shot off as the buzzer expired.
The Jayhawks are now 12-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big 12. And amid all the other numbers, the Jayhawks have yet to lose a close game.
“We’re just a close-knit team,” Greene said. “That’s one of the reasons I feel like we pulled out this win, too. It’s the experience that we have. It’s been an up-and-down season for us. There’s been times where it wasn’t the greatest for us, and we had to come together as a team.”
On Wednesday, that meant surviving a physical Baylor front line that snatched 17 offensive rebounds and outboarded Kansas 36-28. The Jayhawks, who have been offensively challenged for most of the season, buckled down on defense, holding Baylor to just 34 percent shooting for the game.
Now Kansas will return home to face Texas Tech on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. If the Jayhawks can hold serve at home, they face the prospect of starting 3-0 in the Big 12 before heading to Iowa State on Jan. 17. But that’s all in the future.
At the moment, Bill Self is standing inside the Ferrell Center, holding a box score, still slightly unsure how his team found a way to win.
“You’re not going to win that game very often on the road,” Self said.
“So that was huge. That was huge.”