Perry Ellis is known for his stoic demeanor both on and off the court. It was clear, however, that he was emotional when facing the media following his final game with the Kansas Jayhawks. Despite moments of sloppy play and missed shots, the Jayhawks fought for 40 minutes, eventually falling to the Villanova Wildcats 64-59 in the Elite 8, ending their season.
The matchup started off at a frenetic pace, each team pushing the tempo at each and every turn. The Jayhawks drew first blood with Devonte’ Graham driving to the basket and laying it in for two. The difference between strong defensive play and sloppy play is a fine line, but the distinction became progressively clearer as the half rolled on.
Early in the first half, it was Daniel Ochefu who made the biggest impact for Villanova, scoring baskets regardless of which KU big he was being defended by. After the Wildcats grabbed a 10-7 lead at the 13:34 mark of the first half, Kansas went on a run of their own, started off by a three-pointer in transition from Graham, followed by layups from both Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas. A 14-10 deficit would be the largest controlled by the Jayhawks in the first half.
Villanova’s Jalen Brunson was able to take the lead back for the Wildcats following a three-pointer with 9:40 to go until halftime. A combination of foul trouble and disorganized offensive play plagued Kansas through the rest of the half, as Villanova entered the bonus with over six minutes on the clock. Twice in the first period, the Wildcats stole the ball from Kansas following botched handoffs from Perry Ellis to Mason, the second of which resulted in a thunderous dunk for Josh Hart on the other end. These plays were essentially a microcosm of the first half for the Jayhawks.
Villanova closed out the half with a three-pointer that directly followed one from Graham, giving them a 32-25 lead entering the break. Aside from the score, the biggest storyline from the first half of action was the play of Ellis, who was held scoreless while committing four turnovers and two fouls. Graham led all scorers with 11 points at the break, while Kris Jenkins led the Wildcats with 9.
“I thought they did a great job of just trying to swarm me at times,” Ellis said. “Somebody was always there.”
The second half, however, would start out as a different story for the Jayhawks altogether. Perry Ellis drew a quick foul and knocked down two free throws, followed by a steal and acrobatic layup by Mason in rapid succession to force Jay Wright into calling a timeout for Villanova. Ellis would step to the bench after committing his third personal foul, but KU would continue their run, eventually reaching a six-point advantage over Villanova. That would be the largest lead Kansas would hold the rest of the game.
Moments later, the Wildcats would put together a run of their own, getting within one point with under nine minutes to play, before hitting two consecutive threes and taking back the lead, one they would never relinquish. The Jayhawks went through some minor foul trouble, the brunt of it beared by Graham. The team shot well from the floor overall but struggled behind the three-point line once again, connecting on just 6 of 22 shots from long range. Villanova was never able to pull away with a huge lead, but it was eventually enough.
Despite valiant efforts from Mason and Graham, including a contested three from the former and a high-effort play from the latter, which was in fact called a foul. After a few free throws and a final turnover, Villanova closed out the game with a five point victory over Kansas, 64-59.
Ellis, Jamari Traylor and coach Bill Self took the stage at the postgame press conference, clearly despondent and shaken by the loss, understandably so. “Well, obviously, we’re very disappointed, and certainly feel like we didn’t play our best tonight,” Self said.
Traylor, one of the team’s four seniors, summed up the disappointment he felt while also reflecting on his time with the Jayhawks.
“I’m definitely disappointed to lose this game,” Traylor said. “But I’m just going to cherish the moments I had here. We had a great season.”
The Jayhawks were unable to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2012, but when analyzing their season holistically, there are a number of impressive and arguably remarkable feats that the team accomplished. They won a gold medal on behalf of the United States at the World University Games. They won what will be considered one of the best regular season games in modern history when they defeated Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 4. They completed a perfect season at home and won their 12th straight Big 12 championship.
It’s a hard way for the season to end, but regardless of what happens this offseason and in the year to come, there are positives to reflect on from 2015-16 and eternal memories from an exciting Kansas Jayhawks team.