Sports miracles come in moments. They come in these wild flashes that depend on both a bounce going your way and enough practice to take advantage.
They come by mastering that tempestuous line between energy and focus, between rising to the moment and not letting that moment become too big.
There have been a lot of moments in this gym, of course. A lot of times a Kansas basketball team looked like it would but got a Jacque Vaughn three-pointer or Thomas Robinson block or Jamari Traylor dunking and mean-mugging his bench for the kind of win you had to see the highlights later to process.
Kansas had some kind of moments at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday, decibels and tension filling the air — moments when a 76-69 overtime win felt impossible before slowly materializing in front of another sellout crowd and national television audience.
Thank goodness they saw it, too, because this is a hard one to explain without giving up and muttering something about Allen Fieldhouse.
“We deserved to win the game,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins says.
“That was the best win I think I’ve ever had in Allen Fieldhouse,” KU coach Bill Self says, and maybe the best mark of a crazy night in this place is him momentarily forgetting about the last game against Missouri.
The picture of frustration is Brannen Greene missing another three-pointer. Actually, you could pick any of the six Jayhawks who missed all 15 of their three-pointers but this one in particular that painted a dark scene.
Greene is a major part of a team ranked in the top 10 in the polls mostly because he is a fabulous shooter. He has cooled a bit of late, but he is the kind of shooter that you expect the ball to go in when he gets a look at the rim.
All season long, one of the stubborn storylines around this team is how many three-pointers it should shoot. There is a good case to be made that with Greene and Wayne Selden and Frank Mason and no standout scoring force around the basket the Jayhawks should shoot more three-pointers.
But Self did not win all of these conference championships by letting his players settle for three-pointers, which he calls fool’s gold, because there will be nights those jumpers aren’t falling and then what do you do?
It is the kind of rhetorical question a coach asks to make a point, not hear an answer, and by midway through the second half there had to be part of him that felt like his point was being made.
But as Greene rose from the wing with the kind of form they use for instructional videos, the crowd rose anyway because without hope sports can be a fairly miserable experience.
Greene missed. Again. He cussed to himself twice, slapped his hands together in frustration, and dropped his shoulders. The Jayhawks trailed by nine. Self did that thing where he turns around, looks down at the ground, and rubs the back of his head.
“It was a joke how poorly we were playing,” he would say later.
Perry Ellis was in the trainers’ room, with the flu and a sprained knee, unable to return. Cliff Alexander was sitting out one more game while the NCAA investigates his eligibility. This was one of those moments where you can sort of feel a crowd deflate, to take inventory of all the things going wrong and wonder if there is a way out.
It doesn’t usually happen like this.
The picture of a comeback is Jamari Traylor sprinting toward the rim, a touch pass from Selden landing in his hands, and then jumping as high and as hard as his legs allow toward the rim.
“I knew he was going to dunk it,” Graham says. “Just the way he was gathering himself.”
He slams it in with his right hand, the official calls a foul, and Traylor’s scowl toward his bench will probably be edited into the pregame hype video next season. By now, the Jayhawks lead by four, with three minutes left in overtime. As unlikely as this comeback is, it’s nearly impossible to imagine them giving it up.
“I’ve had a lot of crazy dunks,” Traylor says. “I’ll have to watch that one again.”
Traylor’s moment — and he was KU’s best player, by a wide margin — is the highlight of an outrageous game. One of those nights that even years from now the coaches and players involved will remember. They fell behind 17-6 in the beginning, and then by 19 points later. They were out-rebounded, and embarrassingly so on the offensive glass. Their leading scorer went down grabbing his knee and would not return.
West Virginia plays the kind of pressure defense that this KU team often struggles against. West Virginia is as good as any team in the country retrieving its own misses, and giving up offensive rebounds has been a marker of so many of KU’s problems this year.
KU came back from all of that, and even at home, erasing a 16-point deficit in the second half without Ellis is a tremendous accomplishment. All year long, the Jayhawks have been without the kind of clear identity that most of Self’s teams have long before this part of the season. They don’t defend all that well, they don’t run all that much, and they don’t have a player you’d expect to have his jersey retired someday.
But they have found a way to win some wild, unlikely, ugly games along the way. They have been terrific and they have been awful, often in the same game, but have won the Big 12 outright. They played what is widely regarded as the toughest schedule in the country, and have beaten teams like Michigan State and Utah and Florida and now everyone in the Big 12 at least once.
This win in particular came from Frank Mason making more big plays, Kelly Oubre continuing a remarkably calm emergence, Devonte Graham making two free throws at the end of regulation, and KU making an outrageous 34 of 43 free throws.
This win came from a hundred small moments, each of them dependent in varying degrees on luck and years of preparation to take advantage. There is so much behind each of those highlights you see.
The story of a comeback like this will be told for years, those moments meshing together into a wild night that will be remembered among many wild nights in this building.
“I’m tired,” Self says as the night winds down. “I’m tired.”
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.