He's on Fire!

Mario Chalmers (Steve Puppe photo)

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Mario Chalmers was in a zone. He was on fire. He was all-world.

A day after he suffered a strained patellar tendon in his left knee during Saturday’s semifinal against Texas A&M and scored just four points, Chalmers had the best game of his life to lead Kansas to a Big 12 Tournament Championship victory over Texas at the Sprint Center.

The junior guard scored a career-high 30 points, with his last five points coming in the final two minutes to help seal the victory. With KU up just 72-71 (1:52 remaining) and the partisan KU crowd chanting “Let’s Go Jayhawks,” Chalmers hit a three-point bomb and pumped his fist in the air. Then with the Longhorns down 78-73 and still clinging to hope with 40 seconds left, Chalmers stole a D.J. Augstin pass, got fouled, and made two free throws.

This game was over and KU was about to celebrate its third straight Big 12 Tournament Championship and third consecutive victory over the Longhorns in the finals.

Somehow, it was only fitting that the ball was in Chalmers’ hands at the end of the game. After all, this was his game. Chalmers dribbled the last few seconds off the clock as time expired. He threw the ball in the air and raised his fist to the heavens.

KU won 84-74 and received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Midwest Regional. The Jayhawks (31-3) will play Portland State (23-9) this Thursday in Omaha, Neb.

Chalmers outdueled the All-American Augstin, who scored 18 points (4-4 three-pointers) in the first half but only two after halftime. Chalmers said he was pretty hyped to play against guards Augstin and A.J. Abrams (15 points).

“Me and D.J. and Abrams all played together through high school,” Chalmers said. “Anytime we played against each other, we wanted to kill each other. Tonight, I was able to get the best of them.”

Chalmers shot a scorching 10 of 15 from the field and eight of 12 from three-point land. He also had six assists, four rebounds, and two steals in 35 minutes. His 10 field goals and eight three balls were both career highs.

“Mario said before the game that he wanted it,” said senior teammate Darnell Jackson. “He and D.J. were trading baskets (in the first half), but I think Mario wanted it more than D.J. Mario carried the whole team. He was ready to go from the tip.”

Indeed, he was. Chalmers didn’t wait long to start the show. On KU’s first possession, he rebounded a missed jumper by Brandon Rush and swished a three-pointer eight seconds later at the 19:23 mark. Chalmers hit four more three-pointers the first half for 17 points, missing just one field goal in seven attempts.

And then he helped carry KU again after halftime. With Texas leading 49-47, Chalmers ripped off eight straight points for Kansas, including two three-point bombs and a fastbreak layup.

When Chalmers wasn’t scoring, junior guard Brandon Rush and sophomore forward Darrell Arthur picked up the slack. Rush scored 19 points one day after his career-high 28 versus Texas A&M, while Arthur had 16 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore guard Sherron Collins also had nine points and hit a key three-pointer with over five minutes remaining to give KU a 70-69 lead.

“Yesterday, Brandon stepped up big for us,” Chalmers said. “Tonight, everybody stepped up. We were talking about it yesterday, that we were going to need a big game from everybody and I think everybody continued to step up today.”

KU shot 58.6 percent in the first half. For the game, the Jayhawks hit a scorching 60 percent (15-25) from three-point range.

“It was just our night, we were on fire,” Chalmers said.

None more so than Chalmers, who seemed to be completely healed from his knee injury.

“I don’t think his knee bothered him too much today,” KU coach Bill Self said with a smile. “Mario was fabulous, and he wasn’t good yesterday. It’s kind of whoever (is hot has a big night). It makes such a difference when you’re making shots. Of the two I would pick to make shots for us, I would pick Brandon and Mario, because I think they have the most capability of putting up big numbers, and I think Sherron would probably be next.”

“He’s been pretty good against Texas most games,” Self added about Chalmers. “He had a really good game against Texas at home last year (21 points, including 5-5 three-pointers). Tonight was a great game for those two (Chalmers and Rush) because Texas played so much zone, and we were able to get the ball in the middle and play out of that.”

Senior guard Russell Robinson was happy to see his backcourt mate have a career game. Chalmers, whose previous career high was 23 (set twice), entered the game averaging 11.8 points.

“I was surprised,” Robinson said. “You almost expect him to have a big game, but I didn’t expect it to be that big after his performance yesterday. He came out with a lot of energy, and we need him to bring energy everytime. ... He’s a big reason we won.”

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