The wildest, fastest, longest, craziest game anyone seemed able to remember left heads shaking and eardrums ringing and a player from the losing team as the unquestioned star of the night, and, actually, it feels a little strange to type that anyone lost.
By the time it was over, No. 1 Kansas had beaten No. 2 Oklahoma 109-106 after three overtimes in a night Dick Vitale had declared the loudest game he'd attended in 37 years as the voice of this sport. What started as a game ended as a celebration of what college basketball can be.
OU coach Lon Kruger has been in the sport more than four decades and could not remember a better game in his lifetime. KU coach Bill Self gave it the highest compliment possible, calling it the best regular season game he'd ever been a part of, even better than the last bloodwar against Missouri.
And Buddy Hield, who conjured names like Kevin Durant and Randy Rutherford and Anthony Peeler in one of the all-time best performances by a visiting player in 60 years of Allen Fieldhouse, walked off the court in his socks to a standing ovation from KU fans. He said he needed a bed.
"We actually did a really good job holding him to 46 (points)," Self said.
There is no superlative that feels too big for an epic night shared by another soldout crowd and what was surely a growing television audience as word spread around the country of the magic happening in this old limestone barn.
"Craziest game I've ever been a part of," said KU guard Frank Mason.
If this isn't the best college basketball game of the year, we are in for one hell of a season. It is probably the best regular season game in the history of the Big 12, and one of the most entertaining anywhere in the country in recent memory. It brought to mind the Syracuse-UConn six overtime game, always the mark of a classic.
The last time a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game went into triple overtime, Wilt Chamberlain was playing for KU, and it was the 1957 national championship game against North Carolina. The way this one played out, it's entirely plausible that both teams will and should keep their ranking.
They played 55 minutes of beautiful basketball over three hours on a cold winter night. They took 182 shots, made nearly half their three-pointers, committed but 30 turnovers and saw only one player foul out despite hounding defense.
This game had the brute force of bodies slamming to the floor, hard enough you could feel the impact on your feet sitting courtside, but also the delicate ballet of a Jordan Woodard pass thrown perfectly through a swarm of sprinting bodies, Mason spinning 360 degrees before tossing an ally-oop to Wayne Selden, and Hield putting on one of the great performances you will ever see in college basketball.
After all of that, KU won in the final seconds of the third overtime, on one of the sport's simplest plays — an inbound pass. Oklahoma trailed by one with 12 seconds left, plenty of time to set up a good shot on a night when even bad shots were going in. Hield was standing in front of the scorer's table, a particularly cramped space between the padding around the advertisement boards and the sideline.
Depending on exactly where the table is set, a player has the width of 10 wooden boards to stand and find his angle. A crude measurement after the game showed it to be two feet, and probably less.
Mason listened to the referee tell him to give Hield space. Then, Mason ignored the man. When the referee handed Hield the ball, Mason took a step closer, bothering the OU star. Hield would later say he misread the movement of teammate Isaiah Cousins, picking the wrong angle for the pass. Either way, Mason tipped it away, ran down the deflection, drew a foul and hit two free throws.
"A ridiculous play," Self said.
It was easy to wonder if Mason had violated a rule by breaking the plane of the sideline, but Hield did not complain. Kruger was a few feet from the play, and said he didn't have a problem with it. This is one of those tiny advantages that coaches seek and exploit.
Particularly at KU, with sideline space so cramped, players are instructed to exaggerate their pressure on the in-bounder. If anything, the referee might stop and make the defender move back, but even that is extremely rare.
"That's something we talk about as a team," Mason said. "It so happened to work right there at the end."
That was one play out of a thousand, and when they replay this game on television we'll all remember the other plays that could've decided this one. Mason got to the rim at the end of regulation, but didn't get what looked like a clear foul. Then Khadeem Lattin missed a free throw with 2 seconds left. Overtime.
Perry Ellis airballed a good look with 2 seconds left, and Selden missed a wide open three-pointer at the buzzer. Now double overtime. Both teams missed their last four shots in the second overtime. Now triple overtime.
"We both had chances to win," Hield said. "Both teams."
For what seemed like the end of regulation and all of overtime, neither team ran any plays as much as they called sets to let their best guys make plays. Hield spent much of the game stationed in the right corner, sometimes patting his coach on the chest as he jogged by, like, I got this. He was surgical with his performance, needing only 23 shots from the field for his 46 points, many of them punctuated with a growing exasperation from the public address announcer.
Self said he knew this was one of the best games of his career with a few minutes left in regulation, when he looked down the benches and saw so many smiles. He presented it as a showcase for the Big 12, which appears to be the best league in the country this season, but it will be seen by many as an advertisement for the sport.
By the end, everyone was tired. The sweat stains on the jerseys grew longer and wider through the overtimes, and the missed shots and airballs late stand as proof of tired legs. Most of the fans stood for the last 20 minutes or so of action, even in the big money donor seats, and enough energy was spent cheering this game that some students leaned against each other and wiped their foreheads during timeouts.
There are basketball implications you can take from this, if you want. This will likely be KU's toughest Big 12 title defense yet. The conference has at least two, and maybe three (Iowa State?) legitimate national title contenders. Hield is already one of the league's best all-time players. KU is deep, and quite possibly the best team in the country, but lack a shutdown perimeter defender and their classic scoring strength inside. Cheick Diallo's development is a story that will hang all season.
But all of that stuff is for another day. This was one of those rare moments in sports when a game is hyped, and exceeds it, one of those nights that fans and even players and coaches on the losing team will be proud to have been a part of. It was just an early January, regular season, college basketball game, but somehow it felt like so much more than that.
"It's too early," Self said with a chuckle. "January 4 is too early to be playing a game like this."
After the last question was asked, Mason got up slowly from his chair and started to walk toward the locker room. He stopped near a tray full of burritos wrapped in foil. He had to be hungry. He looked at a school administrator, looked down at the burritos, and then back up.
"Go ahead," the man said. "After that, you can take the whole thing."