When the favored team loses a lead and trails late on the road — like what happened to Kansas at Texas on Saturday — panic typically sets in.
One group of players is scared to make a mistake and don’t want to take a shot because the pressure is just too overwhelming. The other group of guys — usually the stars — feel like they have to take a shot. They have to be the hero, a mentality that typically leads to bad, forced shots.
What was so impressive about the Jayhawks’ 69-66 win over Texas was how poised they were in the final minutes. They have Elijah Johnson to thank for that.
In a final few minutes that included several big shots, Johnson’s was the biggest, because it allowed all of the Jayhawks to take a deep breathe and realize they could pull off the comeback collectively. They didn’t need Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson to bail them out.
Before Johnson’s gutty shot, no one other than Taylor or Robinson was willing to shoot. In the 10 minutes before Johnson scored, Taylor and Robinson attempted 12 of KU’s 14 field goal attempts. They had no choice but to shoot because no one else was willing to.
As the Longhorns took the lead, Robinson and Taylor looked spent, and it became apparent that they needed help. Unfortunately, their teammates were falling in that first category of guys who feel overwhelmed by the situation. That’s what made Johnson’s shot so big. Had it been Taylor who had made that shot, it would not have been as significant.
The next possession after Johnson had restored the Jayhawks’ hope, Taylor did take the shot, and his and-one leaner gave KU back the lead. When J’Covan Brown answered with two free throws, KU went back to Robinson.
The biggest development Robinson has had in his game, as I’ve written about ad nauseum lately, is that he’s become a willing passer and learned to trust his teammates. However, if not for Johnson making that 10-footer, I think Robinson would have felt the need to shoot. Instead, when a second defender cheated up the lane to help, Robinson passed it off to Jeff Withey under the basket. It wasn’t the prettiest pass, but it got there and Withey went up strong and finished, getting fouled in the process. Withey then confidently made the go-ahead free throw.
“You’re always nervous when you play in close games because you don’t know how your guys are going to react,” Bill Self told Chris Piper. “And to be honest with you, we haven’t had many close games this year where it came down to one or two possessions, and God did we play good down the stretch.”
KU has had two other games that came down to the final few possessions — Duke in Maui and Davidson in Kansas City. Taylor had a costly turnover against Duke when KU trailed by two in the final minute and needed a basket. In the final minutes against Davidson, the Jayhawks tried to make hero shots. They knew they were losing a game they shouldn’t have been losing, and they panicked.
The scenario was more like the Davidson game, because both were games the Jayhawks were expected to win. What made Saturday different from the Davidson loss was Kansas actually played well for most of the game and played with energy. The reason Texas was able to come back was that shots just quit falling for the Hawks, Brown started making some ridiculous shots and the Longhorns got a few lucky bounces. Big swings in momentum like that happen on the road, and great teams find a way to win those games.
I’m not sure if you can call these Jayhawks great yet, but they are certainly on a roll since losing to Davidson. Even some great Kansas teams have panicked in close games (see Arizona in ’97, Rhode Island in ’98, Northern Iowa in 2010 and VCU last year). This wasn’t the pressure of the NCAA Tournament, but it was a big game that carried a lot of significance in what will surely be a close race in the Big 12.
If the Jayhawks do end up winning an eighth straight conference title, Saturday’s win and Johnson’s shot will be a big reason why.