While it wasn't quite the three-overtime epic they played in January, the Kansas Jayhawks and Oklahoma Sooners put on a show once again, with Kansas coming out on top 76-72 in a crucial Big 12 showdown.
Oklahoma superstar and Player of the Year favorite Buddy Hield missed a potential game-tying free throw with 26 seconds remaining that helped seal the win for Kansas. Prior to that miss, Hield was a perfect 9-of-9 from the free-throw line and had hit 90.2 percent of his attempts coming into the game.
The Jayhawks played one of their best halves of the season on defense, limiting Oklahoma to just eight field goals in the first half. Hield was held without a field goal in the first half after scoring 46 points against Kansas in that three-overtime Sooners loss on January 4.
Credit for Hield's early problems went to Devonte' Graham, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Buddy Hield entered shooting 50% on 3-ptrs. He’s 0-for-4 overall (w/ 2 turnovers) when guarded by Devonte' Graham https://t.co/czsceX4xtp2016-2-13 20:37:13
Kansas head coach Bill Self has had problems getting his team to focus on defense all year. The Jayhawks came into Saturday ranked 92nd in points allowed per game (68.6), and yet this is what they did to Hield early on, per SportsCenter:
Kansas is shutting down Buddy Hield so far. https://t.co/0D473Yl8zh2016-2-13 20:01:15
The Jayhawks were never able to land a haymaker in the first half. Oklahoma trailed by 14 points early in the game but closed the opening 20 minutes on a 14-6 run that cut the deficit to five points.
The Sooners would ride that momentum out of the break, getting two quick three-point field goals from Isaiah Cousins and Hield to give the team its first lead since 2-0. It looked like the tide had turned completely the second Hield's three fell, but Kansas wasn't going down without a fight.
Following a timeout by Self, Wayne Selden made a layup that gave Kansas the lead back. It was also the first bucket of the game for the junior, who is second on the team in scoring.
Matt Galloway of the Topeka Capital-Journal noted that Selden was hearing it all game long from Cousins without letting it get to him:
Matt Galloway @themattgalloway
Isaiah Cousins doing some serious, serious jawing with Wayne Selden after every make. Selden, to his credit, hasn't taken the bait.2016-2-13 20:48:43
Oklahoma wasn't done answering Kansas, with Hield getting hot about midway through the second half. Trailing 48-46, he made a three-pointer from about 24 feet away and connected for another three on the Sooners' next possession for a six-point swing in the span of 24 seconds.
Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World speculated about what the inner monologue was like when Hield launched the three-pointers:
Guerin Emig @GuerinEmig
Buddy Hield before launching from top of key: "(BLEEP) it." #kubball after Hield struck in transition: "(BLEEP) that." #Sooners2016-2-13 21:00:51
After going 0-of-6 in the first half, Hield ended the game with a team-high 24 points.
Yet just when it appeared Oklahoma had things in hand, Self rallied his troops following a timeout. Kansas came back with a 7-0 run, capped off by a Selden three-pointer, to take a 59-57 lead with seven minutes remaining.
This being a game of runs on both sides, Oklahoma fought back with five straight points to retake the lead, with Hield once again capping it off with another field goal from beyond the arc.
Graham did an excellent job picking up the slack for Selden and Perry Ellis. The sophomore put the Jayhawks back in front with five points over the next two possessions. He finished with a season-high 27 points.
In the final six minutes of the game, Graham scored 13 of Kansas' final 17 points, including three huge shots that either tied the game or gave Kansas a lead.
Even though there have been moments during this season when Kansas appeared to be on the verge of falling behind the Big 12 pack, particularly after losing twice in a three-game span to Oklahoma State and Iowa State by a combined 32 points, Self has consistently found a way to get his team to fight back.
As Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports noted, Self is like an action hero when it comes to conquering the Big 12:
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Betting against Bill Self in the Big 12 is like betting against Bruce Willis in Die Hard. And the Lloyd Noble Center is Nakatomi Towers.2016-2-13 12:45:29
This hasn't been the best year for Kansas basketball, as it's battled through adversity at times, yet Self has his team in contention for another conference title after sweeping the regular-season series against Oklahoma (20-4, 8-4).
The Jayhawks (21-4, 9-3), who had previously lost at West Virginia (20-5, 9-3), won their rematch against the Mountaineers on Tuesday, so they are in control of their destiny for another conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 tournament.
Despite Oklahoma's heartbreak Saturday, this game did show the fight in head coach Lon Kruger's team. The Sooners didn't play their best game of the year, but they still had a chance to knock off one of the nation's best teams at the end.
The Sooners still have marquee games remaining against West Virginia, Texas and Baylor, so they will have the opportunity to get the bad taste out of their mouth from this defeat soon. They have some things to work on if they hope to win a national title.
Graham's offense down the stretch was brilliant, but he took time during the postgame press conference to talk about how he slowed Hield down on defense, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com): "I just tried to make every shot tough on him. He still knocked down five trey balls. He still got his shots off. He had a good game. I just tried to lock up and play the best defense I could."
In the same report, Kruger couldn't help but compliment Graham for everything he did to help the Jayhawks secure their biggest win of the season.
"He was great," Kruger said. "He made big plays when they needed them, especially when we had a little bit of a lead, and we couldn't get a stop—he probably scored two or three of those. Good player. Talented guy. Stepped up there and made key buckets for them."
Self told the AP this was "about as good as we can play defensively." Though the Sooners did catch fire in the second half, the Jayhawks have so many playmakers capable of raising their level offensively that they don't have to be perfect on defense to win in crunch time.