STILLWATER, Okla. -- Travis Releford made good on this week’s promise.
After outlasting Oklahoma State 68-67 in two thrilling overtimes, neither the Kansas guard nor any of his teammates did backflips. And, as he predicted they would, the Jayhawks walked out of a sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena in style -- once again in command of the Big 12 Conference race.
"[Revenge] played a little bit of a factor,” Releford said, “but our main goal is to just win the Big 12.”
Kansas made progress toward both, redressing its home loss to Oklahoma State earlier this season while hopping into the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title chase. The Jayhawks moved one game ahead of the Cowboys atop the Big 12 standings along with Kansas State, a team they have already swept.
"It's a huge win for conference implications,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I really thought that Oklahoma State had the best path. I'm not saying we couldn't have won it. We still have the toughest road of anybody. We're still in the game, though.
“This was huge.”
True, the Big 12 race is far from over. Five conference games remain, and the Jayhawks still have Iowa State and Baylor on the road. But having toppled the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse already, Oklahoma State had a rare and precious opportunity to effectively end Kansas’ reign of terror over the league. A reign of terror that includes four consecutive outright conference titles and a piece of the Big 12 championship eight straight seasons.
The last time the Jayhawks failed to finish first? In 2004, when Eddie Sutton’s Final Four Cowboys routed the Jayhawks in Stillwater on their way to an outright title.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma State didn’t need a rout. Just a victory. And the young and talented Cowboys came oh-so-close to stoning Goliath.
In a game that featured 16 ties, 23 lead changes and no lead bigger than five points, the night seemed primed for point guard Marcus Smart, who has championed the Cowboys into conference contention. Over a seven-game winning streak, Smart nailed a game-winning shot to beat Iowa State, then spearheaded Oklahoma State to overtime home victories over Baylor and Oklahoma. Smart also was spectacular in the Cowboys’ 85-80 win Feb. 2 in Lawrence, which he capped with a postgame backflip the Jayhawks didn’t forget.
Despite his poorest shooting night of the season, it looked as if Smart still had magic left in the tank Wednesday. With 1:12 left in regulation, he finished off a fast break by nailing a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game at 57-all.
The next time down the floor with a chance to win the game, however, Smart ignited Oklahoma State’s possession a second too late and was forced into a poor shot, which clanged off the backboard.
Later, the Cowboys had a chance to take their first overtime lead with 26 seconds remaining. But Smart’s driving attempt bounced off the glass, then rolled around and off the rim, forcing the game to a second overtime.
“We knew what was at stake, we knew that Kansas has had a hold on [the league],” said Smart, who scored 16 points but hit just two of 14 shots. “It’s frustrating [we couldn’t come up with the plays].”
As a result, Smart fouled out with 2:24 to go in the second overtime on a charge, stripping the Cowboys of their closer.
“Marcus is a big key to this team,” said backcourt mate Markel Brown, who himself was fabulous in holding Smart’s competition for Big 12 player of the year honors, Ben McLemore, to a season-low seven points. “Once Marcus fouled out, I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ We need Marcus out there. He brings the toughness out there, he gets stops out there. Doesn’t matter if he’s shooting bad, he can still make that big-time play for you. We needed him out there. Had we had him out there, [the game] might have had a different look.”
Instead, it was the Jayhawks who made the winning play late yet again. After Kansas failed to convert a single field goal in either overtime, backup point guard Naadir Tharpe maneuvered his way through Phil Forte and into the paint before swishing a one-handed floater to give the Jayhawks the 68-67 lead.
“We didn't really have any offense; neither team had any offense,” Self said of the overtimes. “But [Tharpe] certainly made a huge play there late. Biggest play of his life, I'm sure."
With Smart sitting on the bench, the best the Cowboys could get on their final shot was Brown’s fadeaway perimeter jumper that bounced off the front of the rim in the final seconds.
"I felt like I let my teammates down,” Smart said. “I wish I was out there to savor that moment with them, help them out and contribute in the way that I usually do.
“Unfortunately it didn't work out that way this time."
Instead, it worked out how it usually has in Big 12 land -- with the Jayhawks on top once again.