It’s not that Naadir Tharpe was unwilling to talk about himself — eventually, he got to it. But it wasn’t going to be until he felt that he’d put things in perspective for everyone who wanted to know about perhaps his finest game in a Kansas uniform.
“Trav brought the energy, Jeff brought the heart,” Tharpe said. “The seniors were big from us, everything I did I was just trying to feed off of them.”
Yes, seniors Travis Releford and Jeff Withey had huge games in Sunday’s 70-58 NCAA Tournament win over North Carolina at the Sprint Center. The Jayhawks wouldn’t have won without them.
But with the game in doubt in the second half, it was Tharpe, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, who coach Bill Self chose to share backcourt responsibilities with senior Elijah Johnson, not all-Big 12 first-teamer Ben McLemore. It was Tharpe who delivered clutch play after clutch play down the stretch.
Tharpe finished with 12 points, three rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes, coming in for McLemore with 13:40 left in the game and the Jayhawks clinging to a 37-35 lead. Self didn’t pull Tharpe until there was just more than a minute left and Kansas had a Sweet 16 matchup Friday against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, safely in the bag.
Tharpe hit three of six shots — all three-pointers — and three of four free throws. All of his points came in the second half.
McLemore, the Jayhawks’ leading scorer, finished with two points and came back in once more, for 7 seconds.
“Ben labored this weekend,” Self said. “He’s still our leading scorer and we’ll go right back to him … but Naadir came in and we were a better team. He was able to break and handle pressure better.”
Tharpe hadn’t scored in double digits since getting 11 points in a loss at TCU on Feb. 6, and Sunday was his season high.
With Kansas trailing 30-21 to start the second half, Releford and Withey pulled the game back even before Tharpe came in and helped finish off the Tar Heels.
First, a three-pointer that put the Jayhawks up 40-36 with 12:49 to play. Then, a steal and an assist to Releford with 11:36 left to go up 47-38.
Then another three-pointer, this one for Kansas’ first double-digit lead, going up 50-38 with 10:32 left.
“(Self) told me to keep on attacking, keep on being aggressive and keep looking to score,” Tharpe said. “When I made those first couple shots, they started to draw to me and I was able to find our guys when they got open.
“I feel like in the second half we started to really play together … basically we told each other at halftime that this wasn’t how we were going to end this season. We weren’t going to let it get this far and catch a beatdown.”
Tharpe’s signature moment came with 5:40 left and the Tar Heels trying to muster one last run. After North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston hit a three-pointer to make the score 57-47, Tharpe caught the ball on the left wing, took a dribble jab-step to get his defender off-balance and stepped back to hit a three-pointer.
North Carolina never threatened again.
“We’ve had close games like this, but we know we’re not going to quit,” Tharpe said. “I felt like it was one of my greatest games, yes, because of the stakes more than anything.”
Tharpe’s teammates were wowed by his performance, particularly Johnson, who smiled when asked about Tharpe, who entered the game averaging 5.4 points and 3.0 assists.
“(Tharpe) doesn’t always take the shot that Coach wants him to take, he doesn’t always do exactly what you want him to do,” Johnson said. “But you know what? He found a way to get it done tonight. That’s what matters.”