LAWRENCE, Kan. — Escorted by a pair of armed police officers, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield was apologetic as he hurried past a gaggle of autograph seekers Monday at Allen Fieldhouse.
"Ten minutes," Hield said as he neared the Sooners locker room just before midnight. "I just need to shower. Give me 10 minutes and I'll be right back."
Hield had certainly earned a moment to himself.
Almost immediately after scoring 46 points in a 109-106 triple-overtime loss to Kansas, Hield returned to the court for a live interview on ESPN. Lingering Kansas fans applauded as the national player of the year candidate answered questions from Scott Van Pelt and then shook the hand of a fawning Dick Vitale, who was seated nearby.
The adulation continued as he snaked through the concourse toward Oklahoma's postgame press conference in his white tube socks, a red-and-white sneaker tucked under each arm.
"Great game, Hield," bellowed a middle-aged man in a KU shirt. "You're all class."
As Hield entered the tunnel, a teenage boy impeded his path.
"You're amazing," he said as Hield signed his program. "That was amazing."
Hero worship is nothing new in Lawrence, where players are treated like celebrities from the day they slip into a uniform. But usually those players are Jayhawks—not members of an opposing team. Hield became a rare exception when 16,300 fans gave him a standing ovation as he trotted off the court following one of the most memorable showings in the 61-year history of Allen Fieldhouse.
Kansas head coach Bill Self said the only other time a visiting foe drew such a reaction was when Texas' Kevin Durant scored 37 points in a loss in 2007.
"They knew then that they were witnessing something special," Self said of the 2007 game. "And that was a special performance by Buddy tonight."
Indeed, Hield's 46 points tied a record for the most ever by a KU opponent at Allen Fieldhouse, as Kansas State's Mike Wroblewski tallied that same total back in 1962. What made Hield's effort even more memorable, though, was that it came in the most anticipated contest of the basketball season to date, an almost unheard of No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup that will live in the memories of those who witnessed it for decades to come.
Kansas, the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll for Week 9, fought back from a 10-point second-half deficit before winning the first triple-overtime game in Allen Fieldhouse history. Hield missed a three-pointer at the buzzer that would've forced a fourth extra period. Still, the Sooners (No. 1 in this week's USA Today coaches poll) left the court with their heads held high.
"I'm proud of our guys," Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. "Given what was at stake and given the stage it was on…I don't know that I've ever been in [a better atmosphere]."
"It was an epic game—probably the best game I've ever been a part of during the regular season," Self said. "We just beat a team that can win a national championship."
No one can argue that after Monday, when it also became obvious that Hield should be at the top of any sensible person's national player of the year ballot. A preseason All-American, Hield is now averaging 26.3 points per game. The most impressive thing about his showing against Kansas was that his 46 points came on just 23 shots.
"That's insane," Sooners forward Khadeem Lattin said.
Maybe to Lattin and other onlookers, but certainly not to Hield, who wouldn't have advanced to this stage if not for an extreme confidence in his abilities during times when so many others riddled him with doubt.
Hield grew up in the Bahamas, a country with virtually zero basketball tradition. Only two players with Bahamian roots (Mychal Thompson and Rick Fox) have enjoyed significant careers in the NBA. Yet, by age 11, Hield had vowed to friends and relatives that he'd become a professional basketball player.
Hield—who lived with his grandmother and, for a period, shared a queen-sized bed with his mother and six siblings—spent hours upon hours in the streets shooting hoops, often into a milk crate he'd hammered to a neighbor's light pole. He was eventually discovered at a summer showcase in the Bahamas before his junior year by Kyle Lindsted, a prep school coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas. Lindsted convinced Hield's family to let him move overseas where he could develop his game.
"People laughed at him (when he left)," Hield's older sister, Jalisa, 26, told Bleacher Report last fall. "Nobody took him seriously. Nobody believed in him."
"Ask them what they think now," she said.
The Kansas Jayhawks are certainly believers. Self said he'd heard about Hield's progress at Sunrise Christian and regrets not recruiting the 6'4" shooting guard harder. Kansas had eventual lottery pick Ben McLemore at the time along with veteran role players on the wing such as Travis Releford. Hield was scheduled to make an unofficial visit to Kansas, but he canceled it after committing to Oklahoma in September before his senior year.
Still, he said he was always fond of Kansas. And, more specifically, Allen Fieldhouse.
"I just wanted to win here, man," Hield said. "As a kid, I grew up watching this place in the Bahamas. I always said I want to play there, or I want to win there. And I came up short.
"I'll have to go through the rest of my life saying I never won at this place."
Brilliant as Hield was for most of Monday's game, he made two crucial mistakes that cost his team down the stretch. The first came when Kansas guard Frank Mason III swatted the ball away from Hield after he'd driven into the lane with 21 seconds remaining and Oklahoma clinging to a 106-105 lead. The ball ended up in the hands of KU's Devonte' Graham, who was fouled and made both free throws to give the Jayhawks a one-point edge.
Moments later, Mason deflected a sideline inbounds pass from Hield and was fouled with 8.6 seconds left. The point guard swished both foul shots to make it 109-106, which was the final score after Hield's three-pointer at the buzzer was off-target.
"It's going to hurt my heart forever," Hield said. "It was a tough matchup (with Mason). It was a tough 46 (points). He's quicker. He was all over me. He made everything tough for me."
After watching Hield scorch his teammates for 22 first-half points, Mason asked Self if he could guard Hield after intermission. Mason managed to pester Hield despite playing all three overtimes with four fouls.
"We did a good job of holding him to 46," Self said. "He'd have probably scored 60 if Frank didn't guard him."
"January 4th is too early to be having games like this," he said.
That might be the case for Self, but what happened Monday was a much-needed jolt for college basketball. Cynics have labeled the 2015-16 season as a down year for the sport, as elite teams—and elite players—have seemed few and far between. But even the most casual fan would've been drawn in by Kansas' victory over Oklahoma.
The Jayhawks and Sooners firmly established themselves as the nation's top two teams. And if he hadn't already, Hield catapulted past Providence's Kris Dunn and LSU's Ben Simmons in the national player of the year race.
"It was good for college basketball," Hield said.
Showered and dressed in street clothes with a gold chain dangling from his neck, Hield emerged from the locker room after most players had already boarded the team bus. He joked about needing a bed, but then said he planned to watch tape of the game as soon as Oklahoma's team plane landed back in Norman—even if it meant staying up until the wee hours of the morning.
"I have to watch it," he said. "It's a habit, a grind. You've got to get better. I can sleep all day tomorrow."
With that, Hield picked up his bag and headed back toward the court. Before leaving Allen Fieldhouse for the final time in his career, Hield had a promise to fulfill to that group of autograph seekers, the ones who stuck around for 10 more minutes while Hield took a shower. Getting Hield's signature was simply the cherry on top of a night they'll remember forever.
And no matter where his career takes him, you can bet Hield will always cherish it, too.
"I'll look back on this 10 years from now," Hield said, "and realize it was one of the best games I ever played in."
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.