OMAHA, Neb. -- Multiple times Sunday -- including a few occasions in the second half when his team trailed Purdue by double digits -- Bill Self sat in the middle of the Kansas huddle and repeated the same phrase.
“We can win this game!” Self said he told his players. “We can win this game!”
There was only one problem.
“Deep down,” Self admitted later, “I’m not sure I was believing it.”
Any doubts Self might have had were understandable. Fair or not, the coach with an NCAA title on his resume is equally defined by the March meltdowns that have soured otherwise great seasons throughout his Kansas career.
First it was Bucknell and Bradley. Then came Northern Iowa and VCU. On Sunday it looked as if disaster was going to strike again when the sixth-place team from the Big Ten almost pestered the Jayhawks into another epic choke job.
This time, instead of wilting down the stretch, Kansas mustered up the inner toughness that’s helped it win eight consecutive Big 12 titles and flourished when it mattered most.
“If you’re going to be scared, you might as well not be on the floor,” Johnson said. “We practice for those moments. You can’t run from them.”
No. 2 seed Kansas, which trailed for virtually the entire game, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. Self’s squad will play No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Friday in St. Louis, with the winner getting either North Carolina or Ohio on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
Players such as Johnson and Taylor, though, were hardly looking that far ahead as they danced in the middle of the CenturyLink Center court Sunday. Unlike so many KU teams before them, the Jayhawks never appeared spooked or rattled during a game in which they shot a season-low 33.9 percent.
“That’s unheard of,” Self said. “That was probably more stressful for our guys than the Purdue guys. When you don’t have that momentum and energy, it takes toughness.
“I’m proud of our guys, because a testimony to a team’s toughness is to figure out a way to win when things aren’t going well. How we won is who we are.”
The Jayhawks won by outrebounding Purdue 44-36, including a season-high 21 offensive boards. They won by tightening their defense on Boilermakers star Robbie Hummel, who had 22 points in the first half but only four in the second after KU switched to a triangle-and-two. And they won because a few key players -- mainly Johnson -- welcomed the opportunity to be a hero instead of shying away from it.
“Elijah,” Self said, “has been our best player the last two weeks.”
Kansas trailed 60-57 after Purdue’s Terone Johnson scored on a pull-up jumper with 2:02 remaining. Nearly a minute later, Elijah Johnson grabbed the long rebound on a missed 3-pointer by D.J. Byrd, dribbled up the court and fired an alley-oop pass to a streaking Taylor, who caught the ball above the rim and dunked it.
It was a risky play by Johnson in such a close game, but it didn’t matter. With 59.9 seconds left, Kansas trailed 60-59.
“I was throwing that lob whether I threw it over the backboard or not,” said Johnson, who scored a team-high 18 points. “If I was down there, I would’ve been mad at Ty if he didn’t throw it to me. That’s our game. That’s how we play with each other every day. Why not throw it?”
Johnson was big again moments later, when he came up with a steal after playing menacing defense on Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson, who had committed just one turnover all game. Johnson secured the ball and raced up the court for an uncontested layup that put Kansas up 61-60.
Purdue’s best chance to win came on its ensuing possession, when Hummel came off a screen and went up for a 3-pointer on the right wing. Robinson raced over at the last second to defend the shot, which Hummel took off-balance.
“They set a screen,” Robinson said. “I jumped at him and prayed that he missed.”
The shot was indeed off. Robinson snared the rebound and passed up the court to Taylor, who made it 63-60 with an uncontested layup with 2.5 seconds remaining.
Taylor probably made a mistake by scoring instead of trying to run out the clock, because it gave Purdue one last shot at a game-tying 3-pointer. The Boilermakers got a decent look considering the circumstances, but Ryne Smith’s heave from the right wing hit the backboard and clanged off the front of the rim.
“When the buzzer went off and we saw the red on the backboard, it was a huge relief,” guard Travis Releford said. “We gave it our all in the second half. We had to earn that one.”
Self’s feelings were similar.
“I feel relieved,” Self said, “but I feel some jubilation, too. The kids are excited. If you looked at our team [before the season] and someone said we’d be 29-7 [actually 29-6] and playing in St. Louis in the Sweet 16, everybody would have said, ‘What a great year.’”
Self’s point is certainly hard to argue.
Kansas lost four starters from season’s Elite Eight team and, throughout most of the season, has depended on Robinson, a national-player-of-the-year candidate, and Taylor, who is a finalist for the Cousy Award.
Lately, though, other players have stepped up. Sometimes it’s been 7-foot center Jeff Withey or walk-on Conner Teahan, a 3-point specialist off the bench. Reserve forward Kevin Young came up with some huge offensive rebounds Sunday. And of course there was Johnson, who will always be remembered for his performance against Purdue.
Along with his heroics in the final minute, Johnson had two huge 3-pointers late in the second half -- including one that came from about 5 feet beyond the arc.
Taylor said he looked at Johnson as he squared up to take the shot, which turned a 56-54 deficit into a 57-56 lead.
“He had a smile on his face,” Taylor said.
Johnson was asked what he thought after he released the ball.
“Money!” he said.
Self hopes Johnson and the rest of the Jayhawks carry that same confidence into their Sweet 16 game against NC State. Even though they’re the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, the Wolfpack have more than proved their worth with victories over No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 Georgetown.
“Seeds don’t matter anymore,” Releford said. “Everyone can play at this point. That’s the great thing about this tournament. Any team can win it -- and any team can have a bad day and get upset.”
Kansas almost became that team again Sunday.
This year, it appears, things are different.