LUBBOCK, Texas – The word of the day was displayed on the white board in the visitor’s locker room at United Supermarkets Arena.
It was underlined three times for emphasis. But that’s 11 times fewer than what the word represented. Kansas assured itself at least a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title with a 74-72 victory over Texas Tech Saturday. It was KU’s 14th consecutive league title, breaking a tie with UCLA. A season that has been spent talking about what the Jayhawks don’t have resulted in what it seems they always have.
“This is the year everybody thought we were gonna lose it,” Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham said. “All the things people say – undersized, no bench, can’t rebound, blah, blah, blah. But we just do what we do. Like the guys who have played before us, we didn’t want to be on the team to end it.”
Graham has played on four Big 12 championship teams and he acknowledged the players who were part of building and maintaining The Streak. “I’m just a small part of this,” he said.
But he was the biggest reason Kansas clinched at least a share of this season’s crown. Graham played 40 minutes for the 11th time in the last 12 games and he was responsible for 70 percent of KU’s offense – in the second half. In the final 90 seconds, he hit a pull-up 18-foot jumper to break a 68-all tie and following a Red Raiders turnover his off-balance circus-shot layup with 31 seconds remaining made it 72-68.
“At the timeout when it was tied, coach said this is what we would have wanted, tie game and the ball,” said Graham, who scored a game-high 26. “It’s time for players to make plays. It was a crazy wild layup. That was definitely luck.”
The Rock Chalk haters will point out that Kansas is the luckiest team in Big 12 history. They claim that the Jayhawks get all the calls. But they can’t explain the fact that KU makes the most of its good fortune.
One of Graham’s second-half baskets was a 28-footer that beat the shot clock. Two of Kansas’ seven first-half threes also came before the 30-second clock went to zero. Twice in the second half, the Jayhawks turned near turnovers into 3-pointers.
“We like to think we’re a tough team, but I think people overlook how tough Kansas is, year in, year out,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said after the game. “Kansas played great, they did what Kansas does. They play in environments like this every game. We intended to be part of the fight like we were today. We’re just getting started building this program and we intend to be a part of the fight for many years to come.”
A week ago, Texas Tech had a one-game lead on Kansas. But then the Jayhawks rallied to beat West Virginia and Texas Tech lost at Baylor. Red Raiders senior point guard Keenan Evans suffered a toe injury and didn’t play the second half. He scored just two points in 25 minutes in Wednesday’s loss at Oklahoma State that dropped Texas Tech out of first place.
Since the injury, Evans has missed 11-of-13 shots. His absence in the second half against Baylor and his limited effectiveness since then has been a factor in the three-game losing streak.
And 27 seconds into Saturday’s game, senior forward Justin Gray collided with Udoka Azubuike on a screen. Gray went down for several minutes and suffered an apparent concussion.
“He’s the ultimate glue guy,” Beard said of the 6-6 Gray. “He was begging to play. We were planning to set him up for shots in the first few minutes and he’s the guy we wanted guarding (Svi) Mykhailiuk. Not having Justin … it sucks.”
Beard had to alter his game plan on the fly but much of what the Red Raiders wanted to accomplish went according to the script. Beard wanted his team to shoot more free throws than Kansas. Check, 23-16. He wanted less than 10 turnovers. Check, 8. He believed that Texas Tech needed to get Azubuike in foul trouble. That didn’t happen as the Kansas big man got all three of his fouls in the second half; but he only took four shots and scored six points.
“We didn’t play through Udoka like we need or want to,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The first 15 minutes couldn’t have played better offensively. Our offense wasn’t any good in the second half.”
Perhaps the Red Raiders were adjusting to Gray’s absence, but they had no answer for the Jayhawks in the first 20 minutes. Kansas shot 59.3 percent from the field and made 53.8 percent of its 3-pointers. The Jayhawks had an 11-point lead with just under five minutes left in the first half but only led 41-37 at intermission.
When Texas Tech won at Kansas on Jan. 2, the Red Raiders never trailed. In the rematch, they could never grab the lead. Texas Tech closed to 45-44 in the first five minutes of the second half but came up empty on its next three possessions … and then Graham ended a 5:03 Kansas field goal drought with a three-point play. Zhaire Smith’s spectacular tip dump with 2:32 remaining tied it at 68 before Graham went to hero mode. The Red Raiders turned it over on back-to-back possessions against Kansas’ zone.
“We played zone to win the game,” said Self, whose team has won four in a row after it was 8-4 in Big 12 play.
That’s how Kansas has survived its shortcomings. It finds a way. In a season where there are no gimmes on the conference schedule, the Jayhawks have found a way to win enough while its competitors have lost enough.
Self described the atmosphere as “the best we’ve seen this season.” Just over 15,000 were inspired and frothed by the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay plus the rare opportunity to take down the kings of the conference. But you know what happens when you come at the king and Texas Tech missed.
The Wreck ‘Em faithful were teased and not pleased by the opportunity. Kansas’ heart and soul will break your heart and soul.
“We haven’t been consistently good this season,” said Self, whose team needs to beat Texas at home Monday or Oklahoma State on the road Saturday to clinch the outright conference title. “We’ve picked the best time to be our best in these last few games. Unlike a lot of teams that we’ve had, this team doesn’t have a lottery pick. What Devonte’ did down the stretch, playing 40 minutes a game again … I’m amazed.”
UCLA’s string of 13 consecutive conference titles ended in 1980 (and ironically, that Bruins team went to the Final Four). For 12 of those seasons UCLA played in an eight-team league with a 14-game schedule.
The Jayhawks have finished on top of the Big 12 standings, first during a 16-game schedule and with an 18-game grind since 2012. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it. With Saturday’s victory, nobody has done what Kansas has done and nobody will ever match it.