Johnson wills Jayhawks to Sweet 16

Johnson wills Jayhawks to Sweet 16

OMAHA, Neb. – With Thomas Robinson an Tyshawn Taylor struggling in the clutches of a tenacious Purdue defense, and with Boilermakers star senior Robbie Hummel hitting seemingly every shot he took, it was Elijah Johnson who stepped up to push the Kansas Jayhawks to a 63-60 victory Sunday night, and in to the Sweet 16.

Elijah Johnson was smiling.

Now, that in and of itself isn't such a strange occurrence. The junior from Las Vegas smiles a lot. Speak to him for a few minutes, and one will come away understanding him to be an intelligent, humorous, all-around happy kid.

Still, it says something more about his personality, his confidence in himself, that with three minutes left in what could have been the final game of the season - and the Kansas Jayhawks down by two points - a big, toothy grin split Johnson's face.

That and the fact that he was hanging in mid-air, preparing to release a three-pointer from what seemed to be the half-court line. Make it, and he and his teammates would possess their first lead of the game, after scratching and clawing back from a double-digit deficit to the Purdue Boilermakers.

Miss it, and fans would have been wondering until October why on Earth he took that shot.

He cut loose. Most of the 16,000-plus packed in to the CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha gasped audibly – and then erupted as it splashed through the nylon cords of the net.

"I was confident in the shot and I took it," Johnson said. "I didn't want to second-guess it. I second-guessed a couple in the first half and I came up with air balls. At halftime we talked as a team. We said no more second-guessing."

As it turned out, that three-pointer wasn't the final word in what was one of the most exciting games of the 2012 NCAA Tournament's first weekend, but it was its defining moment. It proved to the Jayhawks they could get over a hill against which they had struggled for 37 minutes.

The man responsible for the construction of that hill was Robbie Hummel. For 20 minutes, the Boilermakers senior forward couldn't miss. To Kansas fans, it probably felt like he would never miss again.

Three pointers from the wings, mid-range jumpers, even a three with the shot clock winding down that was deep by NBA standards, Hummel hit everything, and he did it all with a defender practically sitting inside his jersey.

Make that defenders - as in the plural form - because Head Coach Bill Self threw the kitchen sink at the Purdue star in an attempt to slow him down, and nothing seemed to work. Thomas Robinson, Kevin Young, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson all had their shot, and at intermission he had 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 5-of-6 from three-point range.

"I felt like he was throwing a rock in the ocean, man," senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "He was knocking everything down. When stuff like that happens, it's hard not to be use like 'Dang, when is he going to miss?'"

It didn't help things that the Jayhawks were struggling as mightily offensively as they had all season. Though quality big men have given this Purdue team no end of trouble, Sunday they made life plenty difficult for Robinson and front court mate Jeff Withey.

As hot as Hummel and the Boilermakers were, Kansas was equally cold. Robinson had just three points heading into the half. Withey posted a goose egg. Taylor had four points, and Travis Releford led Kansas with eight.

But despite shooting 29.4-percent from the field - to Purdue's 54.5-percent - the Jayhawks walked to the locker room down just six points, 36-30.

"First half, we didn't do a good job at all," Self said, of defending Purdue's motion offense. "Matt did a really good job with this game. He kept us off balance.'

The second half didn't start much better, as a Terone Johnson free throw pushed the Boilermakers' lead out to 10 points, 42-32, at the 16:37 mark.

But that's when the Jayhawks began the long trek up the mountain. Slowly but surely they fought back, clamping down defensively and blanketing Hummel with a constantly-shifting triangle-and-two defensive scheme.

At 13:12, the lead was cut to four. Purdue pushed it out to six, and the Jayhawks cut it to three - only to see them push it again out to five.

Back and forth they went, with Kansas coming tantalizing close to the peak - reducing the lead to a single point with 5:52 left in the game - but never quite able to start down the other side. That is, until Johnson hit his three.

The message Self delivered to his team was simple and concise: Trust one another.

And they did. So when Terone Johnson hit a floater to give Purdue back the lead on the very next possession, 58-57, and pushed it back out to three less than a minute later with layup, they never lost confidence in their ability to complete the comeback.

That confidence is why, on a fast break with 1:02 left in the game, Johnson was able to throw a lob to a streaking Taylor, who finished it with a thunderous dunk. Kansas may be the only team in the country with two guards capable of making that type of play, and to do so with the game coming down to literally its final minute spoke volumes about their faith in each other.

When asked, Johnson said a second thought about throwing the alley-oop in such a tight situation never crossed his mind.

"In my opinion, Tyshawn and myself are the most athletic guards on the same team," he said. "So if I was down there I knew Ty would have thrown it to me. Once again, there was no second-guessing. I trust him and he came up with the two points."

It's fitting of a Bill Self-coached team that it was defense that ultimately sealed the deal. As the Boilermakers attempted to soak time off the clock before getting up a shot attempt, Johnson slid into a scrum and came up with the ball, flying down court for a layup and the lead, 61-60.

Purdue took one final timeout to set a play, and the ball ended up in the hands of - who else - Hummel.

Afterward, Self expressed sincere admiration for the versatile senior forward, who has fought his way back from two season-ending knee injuries to enjoy a fantastic swan song.

"You know, I've been a fan from afar for a while," he said. "With everything he's gone through, he deserved - and I thought this before the game - I thought he play great because I thought he deserved to play great in the NCAA Tournament. He was fabulous."

With eight seconds left, he cut loose with a three-pointer after running through a multitude of screens, only to watch it clank off the iron. Robinson corralled the rebound and found Taylor running all alone at half-court. His emphatic dunk gave Kansas a 63-60 lead and put an exclamation point on the comeback.

The Jayhawks don't enjoy finding themselves in tight situations late, but they have been prepared for them by a handful of such games this season, including the historic come-from-behind victory over Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse just a few weeks ago.

"My message to the team at halftime was 'We've been here before, don't get discouraged - just keep playing,'" Taylor said. "It's a long game, it's a game of runs. Coach always says that. They went on a run for most of the game. We kept grinding it out and trusting in our teammates and ourselves. We made plays down the stretch."

Now, the Jayhawks will travel back to Lawrence, Kan. to prepare for regional action in St. Louis next weekend. They will take on North Carolina State on Friday night, with tipoff scheduled tentatively for 9:17 p.m.

Phog.net Recommended Stories