Cornell gave No. 1 Kansas everything they had Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse. But Sherron…
Self was well aware his team had yet to form an identity this season. He needed to know the answers to the following questions – how will we react when the offense isn't so free flowing? How will we respond when things don't go our way? Will we be tough enough?
Self thought Kansas might get that "muddied up" contest in Philadelphia last Saturday against Temple. Instead Kansas came in and blew the doors off the newly-ranked Atlantic 10 team winning by 32 points.
KU didn't have to wait long thought because that much-needed test came at home against Ivy League opponent Cornell. It was a hard fought 71-66 victory over a senior-laden, quality team.
"In the conference we're going to play a lot of these games," Self said in his postgame press conference. "Well, I hope not a lot but we're going to play a lot of close games that are highly contested especially away from home where one or two possessions matters. We needed to play a game like this."
The Big Red came in boasting a 12-2 record with nine of those wins coming on the road. They were facing a Kansas team coming off a season-best performance and headed to a top 25 matchup at Tennessee. Maybe your classic trap game or maybe KU didn't full respect the ability of this Big Red squad which was clearly not intimidated by the historic confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
"No disrespect to anyone we've played but that's the best team we've played," Self remarked.
Kansas got all it could handle on a night when Xavier Henry was stone cold (3-13 FG, 14 pts), free throws were clanging off the rim, the Hawks were getting crushed on the boards, shots from point blank range went awry, the defense was shoddy, and remarkably, a team this talented, went over eight minutes without scoring from the field. Those 50-50 balls Self talked about just about a week ago were not corralled and Kansas was certainly in unfamiliar territory trailing for most of the game AT HOME.
But for all the talk there has been about Self's rotation and the questions about whether or not he could play 10 guys …one thing was certain after tonight. When the game is on the line there are two poised upperclassmen that Kansas can assuredly turn to.
It was evident with Kansas down six. Junior Cole Aldrich provided the big offensive rebound and kicked it to his national championship pal Sherron Collins who promptly nailed a three trimming the lead to three (55-52) at the time.
For Collins it was a seemingly endless array of big plays made in this one. Sherron has always had the ability to shine when the lights were brightest and the tension at its highest point.
"To me he's one of those guys that has really deferred to everybody else to get everyone else involved but everyone on our team knows who the guy is at crunch time. He's done a good job involving other guys but tonight it was his time to go make plays."
"I thought (Sherron) Collins took over at every critical moment and hit big shots," Cornell head coach Steve Donahue added.
On a night when the collar was tight and KU looked like it was feeling the pressure of an undefeated number one team with a thick layer of saran wrap on the rim Collins and Aldrich simply refused to lose. You could see it in both their eyes. Their demeanor was calming and they responded to the challenge with big plays.
"I knew with the mindset Sherron had tonight and that killer instinct of going anywhere and getting anything that he wanted, I looked at him and I said ‘let's go do this," Aldrich continued. "Let's go get us a win'. Fortunately, he made some big free throws and X[avier Henry] made the last two to put us up by five."
No play was bigger than a drive set up by Kansas in the huddle down 1 (64-63), with 49 seconds left. There was no doubt whose hands the ball was going to end up in.
"It's really get the ball to number 4 and get out of his way," said Self about the play talked about in the huddle as he contemplated whether or not they should try to get a two for 1 with the 49 seconds remaining. "What we put in there was just try to open up a lane and it worked, it worked perfectly."
"I knew I could get past the first defender and my thought was who is going to help? That's what I was really thinking. Coach Self drew up a perfect play and I had isolation and the defender was too late to help and he fouled me," Collins added.
What resulted was an and-one and although Collins missed the free throw he made every critical play down the stretch. Like Self said, Collins "lives for that moment". Collins was cool from the line (13-14 FT) and finished with a career-high 33 points.
What will be forgotten is that it was the senior All-American candidate who kept KU in the game in the first half with the offense and defense struggling but what will be written about is the heroic effort and clutch play late.
"He hadn't had a game like this yet where the pressure was really on," Self continued. "To me, I think he's the best guard in the country I think he showed tonight that tonight he was definitely the best guard in the country. I thought he was fabulous and put on us on his back"
"He showed his leadership and why they say he's the best guard in the country," said Xavier Henry echoing Self's sentiments. "He can do everything for us when we need him to. He put us on his back."
Meanwhile Aldrich while not as flashy as Collins secured critical rebounds on both ends of the court late in the game, made a couple of big blocks, and had the hoop that cut the Cornell lead to 60-58 with just under five minutes to play. Aldrich's numbers may not look super impressive on the surface (13 pts, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks) but it was Aldrich and Collins proving they are unquestionably the leaders of this basketball team and the players you want with the ball with the game on the line.
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