So even when the Jayhawks started the second half outscoring California 24-6 to not only overcome a 34-31 halftime deficit to take a 15-point lead, I still had my fingers crossed.
And when the Golden Bears whittled the lead down to nine with plenty of time left, I wore my lucky rabbit’s foot to the bone.
But Saturday, the Jayhawks finally got it done, making more than enough plays, defensive stops and free throws down the stretch to seal the deal and take a 69-56 win against a good Golden Bears team that may contend in the Pac 10 conference.
"I thought we did a pretty good job down the stretch,” said KU head coach Bill Self. “We did good finishing the game.
Julian Wright, who had 11 points and six rebounds in just 17 minutes, said the difference was maintaining a high energy level – something KU hasn’t done this season when they secured the lead.
“We learned from the St. Joseph game,” Wright said. “We got up early and got comfortable. We’re not experienced enough to be comfortable. We know we need to keep the intensity and run the floor, and that’s what we did today.”
After a first half that saw KU take a 3-2 lead on a Jeff Hawkins three-pointer to start the game only to take next seven minutes off, the Jayhawks came out and pressed the issue in the second half, playing far more aggressively in the second half and down the stretch than they have all season.
Self’s inspirational halftime speech was pretty simple: "I told our guys to shoot better.”
“I thought we did a good job getting the ball to the paint in the second half,” he continued. “We got the ball where we needed it to be.”
Micah Downs (10 points, including two well-timed baskets from behind the arc) said that this is the first time KU’s played solid down the stretch against a quality opponent, and that could have some lasting effects.
"This is a good game to get our confidence back up and it makes us believe we can beat a good team,” he said.
To a man, the Jayhawks couldn’t have been happier to pick up the win.
“We got the monkey off our back, but we’ve got to get better,” CJ Giles (17 points, nine rebounds, five blocks) said. “This game will be just a step for us to get better.”
How big was this win?
"We needed it real bad. We were always confident, but we needed to get our swagger back and this win really helps a lot,” Giles said.
Micah Downs agreed, “This is a good game to get our confidence back up and it makes us believe we can beat a good team.”
And their coach agreed.
“We needed this,” Self said. “We haven’t played great, but we haven’t played as bad as our record. We’ve played some good teams.”
So, for the first time in the 2005-06 season, the Jayhawks had a legitimate opponent down and kept them there by making plays on both ends of the floor. No one will confuse this win with Notre Dame ending UCLA’s streak or Villanova beating Georgetown, but this game has all the earmarks of being a benchmark win for this squad, both on the court and from the neck up.
I hope it isn’t too early to hope the Jayhawks add more wins like this to their list of New Year’s resolutions. It’s going to take several of them if KU is to keep their hopes of making a run at the Big 12 conference title and the NCAA tournament alive.