Vahe Gregorian

Final-game stumbles and all, Perry Ellis leaves Lawrence as one of KU’s greatest players

In a more fair world, or perhaps a fairy tale one, Kansas’ NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game against Villanova on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center would have provided a coronation of sorts for senior Perry Ellis.

A victory would have propelled the dedicated and sincere Ellis and KU to the Final Four to put the exclamation point on his terrific KU career, one tinged at times with growing pains but more distinguished just by growth.

A victory would have meant a different sort of validation for the valedictorian of Wichita Heights.

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Instead of Villanova fending off Kansas 64-59 on a night Ellis had as many turnovers (four) as points, the story would have gone this way:

That Ellis overcame a mess of a first half and spurred KU to a comeback win that started when he finally managed his first points of the game after being fouled seconds into the second half.

Better yet, the story would add this turn: The Jayhawks finally came back from nine points down to take the lead for good at 37-36 after Ellis made his first basket with 13 minutes 23 seconds left.

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Adding a symbolic flourish to how he’s evolved, that basket came after the subdued Ellis shouted “Wayne, Wayne, Wayne, Wayne!” to get the ball from teammate Wayne Selden.

But instead of being able to celebrate after the game, here was a red-eyed Ellis showing another side of himself: choking up when asked what Villanova coach Jay Wright had said in the long seconds he had consoled him in the handshake line.

“He just told me,” Ellis said, pausing as tears welled in his eyes, “I’m a great player and just keep my head up.”

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And he was, the eighth-leading scorer in school history (1,798 points), one of the guys who put the rock in Rock Chalk.

“He’s going to go down as a great here,” Selden said, “because of everything he gave to this place.”

It’s a legacy that won’t be diminished by Saturday …

Even if it could have been enhanced with a victory.

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“I have grown so much as a player/person my 4 years here!” Ellis posted on Twitter before he even left the locker room. “Fell short but it was a honor to have KANSAS across my chest! Thank you everyone!

But the distinction of being a Final Four team just wasn’t to be for Ellis and KU, for plenty of reasons that went beyond Ellis.

The Jayhawks were passive and off-kilter much of the first half, at one point committing eight turnovers in less than six minutes and looking tired or tight and not at all like the team they’d been for months as they’d won 17 in a row.

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“I thought we got really out of character there for a stretch in the first half … That was probably about the worst ball we played in a long time,” KU coach Bill Self said.

Then, when Kansas grinded back to secure a 45-40 lead, it had no counter-punch after Villanova went on a 10-0 run.

On Friday here in Muhammad Ali’s hometown, Wright had likened this matchup to a heavyweight fight. With all due respect to Ali, he touted the role of Philly’s own Joe Frazier: “the underdog, the fighter, the Rocky.”

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As it happened, though, he took a cue from Ali by playing a little rope-a-dope when it came to how he viewed Ellis, who had scored 20 points or more in seven of KU’s previous eight games.

“If you put too much attention on Perry Ellis, they have a system and a scheme to take advantage of that and get everybody else easier shots, and the other players are very talented,” he said. “So you just can’t do it. You’ve got to play him straight up. …

“If you give him too much attention, these guys, every one of these guys, can kill you.”

But Villanova gambled otherwise, particularly in the first half, when it flustered Ellis with various forms of extra attention to muzzle him to just two field-goal attempts as he was turning the ball over four times.

Even his less-contested shots wouldn’t fall, starting with a tone-setting miss on the first play of the game and, from a career 76 percent free-throw shooter, the front end of a one-and-one.

“It happens in basketball sometimes where things don’t go your way,” Ellis said. “And it wasn’t going my way, so I tried to step up in different ways, just try to help, just make some plays.”

Missing those early looks and getting two fouls, including one on a charge on KU’s second possession, Self thought, made Ellis shy away some even as KU did a poor job either getting him the ball or getting to places where he could get the ball back.

And that ended up being the story of Ellis’ last college game, something that will sting for a while but also is only a sliver of his story.

“We’ve ridden Perry pretty hard over the last three years, and he’s almost always delivered for us,” Self said. “And so it doesn’t take anything away at all. …

“One of the all-time greats, regardless of the outcome of this game.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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