By Blake Schuster
Purdue did its best. They were 23 seconds away from adding their name along side Bradley, Bucknell, VCU, and Northern Iowa in Kansas Basketball infamy, but an Elijah Johnson layup stopped it. Where the Jayhawks had gone down so many times before, they emerged on top. Now a date with North Carolina State in St. Louis waits next weekend after Kansas defeated Purdue 63-60 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
“I’ve been around long enough now that usually teams that have great success in the tournament figure out a way to win a game when they don’t play their best,” Bill Self said. “Hopefully this was that game.”
To start — and almost finish — Kansas wasn’t anywhere near its best. Purdue opened up on a 19-8 run in the first 12 minutes, and it seemed Robbie Hummel was unstoppable: 26 points on 9-13 shooting, sparking a hardworking Purdue team to keep hang onto the lead until 3:01 left in the second half when Elijah Johnson sunk a three after a block from Thomas Robinson that was reminiscent of his late game heroics against Missouri on Feb 25th. Justin Wesley had a chance to tie the game at the line with 3:19 remaining in the first, but after hitting his first shot the second rimmed out and the Boilermakers went back up by six to close out the first half up 36-30.
But even with the lead in reach it was a first half Kansas needed to forget quickly. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were both 1-5 from the field, and Jeff Withey was getting beat by Purdue’s motion offense forcing Self to only play him for 15 minutes total. Kansas would have been in a much deeper hole had it not been for Naadir Tharpe and Travis Releford who kept coming up with timely shots to keep the Jayhawks within striking distance.
“It wasn’t my intention, but if the shot was there I was going to take it,” Naadir Tharpe said.
Releford and Tharpe combined for 13 points each one crucial as the Boilermakers had more than a fair share of opportunities to bust the game open, including getting the lead up to 11. But the team that had fought their way — sometimes to no avail — through games like the Maui Championship against Duke, Davidson at the Sprint Center, and both Missouri games found away to keep grinding until they had the lead with the clock showing zeros.
“Going into halftime down by six my message to the team was we’ve been here before,” Taylor said. “Don’t get discouraged just keep playing, keep grinding, and trust your teammates.”
It was trust that allowed Johnson to throw a lob from just past center court to Taylor for an alley-oop after coming up with DJ Byrd rebound with 1:02 remaining in the game. The bucket brought Kansas within one and the mainly pro Kansas crowd at the CenturyLink Center to their feet.
On the next possession it was Johnson again keeping Kansas alive, stealing the ball from Lewis Jackson and sprinting down court to toss in a layup to give the Jayhawks the lead with 23 seconds left. After a Purdue timeout the Boilermakers drew up a play to get Hummel open from three, where he had stroked 5-8. The senior had a clean look at the basket but couldn’t get it to fall leaving Robinson to gobble up the rebound and chuck it to Taylor who dunked it home with 2.5 seconds remaining. On the following inbound Ryne Smith jacked up a three that hit the backboard, flirted with the rim, and eventually fell out as the buzzer sounded.
Kansas shot 33% from the field, 65% from the line, Releford and Taylor each had four fouls, and the Jayhawks only led the game for a total of 47 seconds, but the scoreboard was in their favor when it mattered most.
“We just had to compete and keep playing throughout it,” Releford said. “It was a weight off our back when the shot clock went off and we saw that red light, we knew we could celebrate.”