The play that sent Saturday's Border War to overtime and Kansas onto its eighth straight Big 12 title originated on Bill Self's whiteboard. It wasn't much different than the play Self scribbled for Mario Chalmers' miracle three-pointer that sent the 2008 national championship game to overtime.
Elijah Johnson played the role of Sherron Collins, dribbling the ball up the right side of the court. Tyshawn Taylor played the role of Chalmers, taking the handoff from Johnson. But instead of rising up for the game-tying three, Taylor passed back to Johnson, who had received a screen from Thomas Robinson. Robinson rolled to the basket, Johnson fed him the ball, and Robinson finished and was fouled.
Different players, different twist, same result.
"Just because the roster changes, expectations don't," Self said after his team's 87-86 overtime win over Missouri.
But it almost wasn't
Every time Kansas players break their huddle, they yell "Big 12 champions." "That's what we play for," Taylor said. "That's what we've been."
That's what they've been was the thought after Missouri won the first Border War battle on February 4. Marcus Denmon brought his team back from a late eight-point deficit that night and tied the Jayhawks in the conference standings. Missouri, not Kansas, looked to be the favorite to win the Big 12.
The Jayhawks had to travel to Waco four days later and still had to go to Manhattan. The Tigers, on the other hand, had already played at Baylor, K-State and Iowa State. They still had to travel to Lawrence, but their path looked a lot easier, and they had the best offense in the country. Finally, a team had knocked Kansas off its perch.
Robinson, as much as anyone, felt like he had given Missouri a chance to leave the Big 12 as champions. It was Robinson who got the Tigers' rally started when he took a quick shot with KU ahead eight, when all the Jayhawks needed to do was milk the shot clock. Robinson followed that up by fouling Denmon on an and-one basket.
KU's star big man took nearly an hour to leave the locker room after the 74-71 loss in Columbia.
"I don't want to lose anymore," he said. "We've got to win the conference."
How it almost got away
Robinson's plan was set up perfectly when the Tigers traveled to Lawrence on Saturday. K-State gave Kansas some help by knocking off Mizzou on Monday, giving KU a one-game lead in the standings. A win in the final regular-season Border War contest would guarantee Kansas a share of the Big 12 title. A loss followed by wins in KU's final two games -- at Oklahoma State and home against Texas -- would also get Kansas a share of the title.
Sharing, however, wasn't what Kansas had in mind. Especially sharing with Missouri.
Still, when Robinson picked up his second foul on a questionable charge call, the Tigers finished the first half on an 11-1 run, and sharing started to look a lot more realistic.
"I was thinking, 'I let my team down again,'" Robinson said. "Things looked like they were going downhill, but at the same time, I knew in the back of my mind I still had 20 minutes left."
The move that changed the game
Missouri scored on its first five possessions of the second half. Self realized he needed to do something to throw the Tigers off, so he decided to use a zone defense for the first time in conference play.
Denmon nailed a three-pointer from the right corner on KU's first possession in a zone, and at that point, the Tigers had scored 1.45 points per possession and led 58-39.
KU's defense had not allowed an opponent to score better than a point per possession since its loss at MU. Jeff Withey had a lot to do with that, as he had 27 blocks during that five-game stretch. But Withey rolled his ankle three minutes in, played nine insignificant minutes (2 points, 1 rebound, 0 blocks), and the Tigers were carving up KU's defense.
"We were awful," Self said. "Down 19. Nothing going."
So Self tried the zone, and after Denmon's three-pointer, it worked. The Tigers had four straight empty trips and threw up some questionable shots.
Once Kansas went back to man, the Tigers had lost their offensive mojo. They went seven minutes without a field goal from the 10:51 to 3:50 mark, and they scored only 0.65 points per trip from the 16-minute mark to the end of regulation.
"We didn't make shots that we had been making," Kim English said. "Those stretches happen in games but you really have to get stops to stop the bleeding a little bit."
What had slowed KU's offense the first half and the beginning of the second half, to the tune of 0.84 points per trip, was a funky matchup zone defense.
Self figured out a way to get the ball moving by using Travis Releford as a screener at the top. Releford helped Taylor, Johnson and Conner Teahan get open looks, opened up driving lanes for Taylor and passing angles to get the ball to Robinson in the post.
"The whole deal with our team is, Thomas, you touch it, or Ty, you drive it," Self said. "We did a pretty good job at that."
Over the final 35 possessions of the game, when Mizzou's struggles began, the Jayhawks scored 1.46 points per possession. Kansas made six of nine threes in the second half and OT, and Robinson scored 18 of his 28 points.
It also helped that Kansas made 15 of 18 free throws in the second half and OT after making only seven of 15 in the first half. Taylor, who had missed two costly freebies at Mizzou, won the game with his two free throws with 8.3 seconds left.
"Coach really doesn't stress free throws," Taylor said. "He feels like if he talks about it and stresses it to us, we'll probably miss even more. He feels like we're big-time players and we should be able to knock them down. That's exactly what we did."
Big 12 champions
With Gonzaga's run of 11 straight WCC titles coming to an end, Kansas now has the longest current run of conference titles.
Self has lost only four Big 12 home games in nine seasons at Allen Fieldhouse. He is 121-23 in regular season conference games. He won this season with one starter returning and a former walk-on (Teahan) as the first guy off the bench.
"For this team to come as far as it has and winning that eighth straight, I'm not a real emotional guy, but that was as good as it gets," Self said.
"Payback definitely feels good," Robinson said. "Like me and Ty talked about, we felt like somebody jumped us and just ran away, and we finally caught up with them."
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.
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