KU head coach Bill Self knew his team needed it. He was almost begging for it.
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
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