KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tasked with speaking over the hoots and hollers pouring out of a victorious locker room approximately 35 yards away, Bill Self delivered a message of hope.
His Kansas basketball squad didn’t give up Saturday, so neither has the head coach on this postseason.
“Jeez,” Self remarked, “this is the best I’ve felt about my team all year long.”
The No. 17-ranked and No. 3-seeded Jayhawks fell 78-66 to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game at Sprint Center, unable to break through a rancid shooting performance that included a 3-for-18 clip from 3-point range. Dire offense stuck KU into a 10-point halftime hole, and despite numerous attempts at a second-half comeback, the Cyclones turned the 11-time tourney champion away time and time again.
Lindell Wigginton scored 17 points and Marial Shayok, the tournament’s most outstanding player, pitched in 15 for No. 5-seeded Iowa State, which became the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big 12 Tournament, an event it has secured in four of the last six seasons.
Still, Self saw enough grit to leave Kansas City with optimism for his team’s postseason future.
“We had nothing go well, nothing, and they battled their asses off for 40 minutes,” Self said. “Even though it wasn’t pretty, I thought we did a lot of good things.”
“Wasn’t pretty” is probably an understatement, particularly in respect to the Jayhawks’ first half.
KU (25-9) shot 27.8 percent in the opening period, hitting just 8 of 16 layup attempts, missing all nine tries from 3-point range and converting just 2 of 8 attempts from the free-throw line. Junior forward Dedric Lawson, who entered the game averaging a team-best 19.2 points, hit only 2 of 11 shot attempts, all taken inside the arc.
Devon Dotson’s layup through contact locked the game at 21 with 6:34 remaining in the first half, but it proved to be the last field goal make for the Jayhawks in the opening period — Dotson went to the bench shortly thereafter with foul trouble, and the Cyclones (23-11) finished the period on an 11-1 run to take a 32-22 advantage into the locker room despite its own 3-for-11 effort from 3 across the first 20 minutes.
“It’s almost comical to start the game: How many layups did we miss and how many 3s did we miss, open 3s, and how many free throws did we miss, and you look up and we’re down six or whatever?” Self said. “So I didn’t think our defense was awful. Now, they did miss some open looks too, and they may have a little bit more skilled 3-point shooters than what we have, but still, we’re not a team that goes 3 of 18 (from 3).”
Dotson’s driving layup on KU’s first possession of the second half cut the deficit to eight, but the single-digit margin didn’t last long — Tyrese Haliburton hit an NBA-range 3 on the following possession, kick-starting a 9-0 run capped with a Michael Jacobson jumper that made the Cyclone advantage 17 with 17:13 left.
As it did so often the second half, KU fought back. Dotson converted a pair of driving layups to cap an 11-4 stretch to cut the deficit to 10, 45-35, but the Cyclones had no trouble answering — Jacobson drained a 3-pointer and followed with a basket interference-aided layup, and Shayok hit a jumper to re-establish a 17-point lead, 52-35, with 12:33 remaining.
Again, KU rallied. Dotson stopped the bleeding with a corner trey at 11:15, the Jayhawks’ first made 3 in 12 attempts, and the team again cut the deficit to 10 on the strength of a quick 7-0 run. But another deep Haliburton trey, this time from the wing just inches in front of the Cyclone bench, squashed the mini-rally and electrified the red-packed Sprint Center.
“We never laid down, that’s for sure. I thought we fought hard,” Self said. “You know, you fight hard, you miss an open look, you miss a layup and it’s deflating, but the guys didn’t (give up). Their body language was good. They kept grinding. I thought that was a good thing to see. Nobody wants to see it because nobody likes going through it, but if we weren’t going to win today, I thought there were some things we could get out of it, and we did that.”
ISU’s offense continued clicking, but KU’s shooters finally got red-hot. Dotson’s trey was the first bucket in a 7 of 7 shooting stretch, a run Lawson capped with back-to-back layups to make the deficit 60-51 and force a Cyclone timeout with 7:06 remaining. Again, though, ISU stuck back — after converting a pair of free throws, Nick Weiler-Babb hit a triple to make the lead 14 with 6:13 left.
The teams continued to trade blows — Ochai Agbaji finished a layup after an offensive rebound; Wigginton hit three free-throw attempts after he was fouled by Dotson on a deep try — until KU authored what became its last gasp. The Jayhawks reeled off a 6-0 run, finished with a Lawson tip-in with 3-minutes left, to again cut the deficit to 70-61 at the 3-minute mark. It was again Weiler-Babb, though, with a point-blank make to answer, and after a Lawson layup, Garrett committed a costly turnover with 1:41 remaining.
Quentin Grimes fouled out with 1:20 left, and Lawson slammed the ball to the court in frustration, resulting in a technical foul. The Cyclones converted all four ensuing free-throw attempts to earn a 13-point lead, and from that point, only the streamer drop and trophy presentation remained.
Lawson finished with 18 points but needed an 8-for-21 shooting performance to get there — “Dedric had more good looks in the first half than he had all year,” Self deadpanned. Garrett pulled in a team-high 15 rebounds but himself finished 2-for-12 from the floor. Dotson’s 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting stood as KU’s most efficient performance, who got 10 from Grimes to round out the double-figure scorers. Dotson and Lawson were both named to the All-Tournament team.
On the heels of the double-digit loss, Self entered the locker room and, as he did with the media, struck an upbeat tone. He said he was proud of the way the team fought, Agbaji recalled, and added it’s already time to move on from Saturday’s outcome, with eyes turning to Selection Sunday.
For what it’s worth, Self isn’t the only one leaving Kansas City with hope.
“I mean, I think we have a big run in us. Honestly, I believe that,” Agbaji said. “A lot of guys are buying in. Everyone is buying in. We’re together now. This is behind us now. I think moving forward we’ve just got to focus opponent-by-opponent, game-by-game.”
Where the Jayhawks go from here will be a mystery until the 5 p.m. Sunday selection show. Self had expressed his belief a good showing this week could get KU as high as a three-seed.
“We’ve played by far the hardest schedule in the country. It’s a monstrous schedule, by far. And we’ve been through some crap," Self said. "But I still think with this particular team we’re playing our best right now. ...
“Did we win? No. Are we pissed that we lost? Yes. But I thought that we got better and we had some individuals have a better understanding of what it takes to win in March.”
IOWA ST. 78, No. 17 KANSAS 66
IOWA ST. (23-11)
Jacobson 6-8 0-0 14, Haliburton 4-6 0-0 11, Shayok 5-12 5-6 15, Horton-Tucker 2-8 4-6 8, Weiler-Babb 3-7 2-2 9, Lard 1-1 0-1 2, Conditt 1-1 0-0 2, Wigginton 4-11 8-10 17. Totals 26-54 19-25 78.
McCormack 2-2 0-0 4, D.Lawson 8-21 2-3 18, Grimes 5-12 0-1 10, Agbaji 2-7 0-0 5, Dotson 7-13 2-3 17, Lightfoot 0-0 0-0 0, Moore 2-3 0-0 5, K.Lawson 0-1 0-0 0, Garrett 2-12 3-6 7. Totals 28-71 7-13 66.
Halftime — Iowa St. 32-22. 3-Point Goals — Iowa St. 7-19 (Haliburton 3-5, Jacobson 2-2, Wigginton 1-2, Weiler-Babb 1-3, Horton-Tucker 0-2, Shayok 0-5), Kansas 3-18 (Moore 1-1, Dotson 1-3, Agbaji 1-4, K.Lawson 0-1, D.Lawson 0-1, Garrett 0-2, Grimes 0-6). Fouled Out — Grimes. Rebounds — Iowa St. 35 (Weiler-Babb 8), Kansas 39 (Garrett 15). Assists — Iowa St. 12 (Weiler-Babb 5), Kansas 10 (Garrett 4). Total Fouls — Iowa St. 16, Kansas 18.