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Jayhawks Edge Sooners, 53-50
By John Steere
Box score
Williams' comments
Season summary
Specialty stats

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The Jayhawks edged the Sooners in Allen Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon, 53-50, and in the process breathed some life into their faltering season.  It wasn't a pretty game. It was a game dominated by defense, as the low score shows, and both teams had to grind hard for every point. The Jayhawks' offense was no more efficient than in Wednesday's loss to Iowa State--the Jayhawks shot only 36% and committed 18 turnovers--and as in the loss to Iowa State the Jayhawks' offense disappeared in the final four minutes of a close game.

Unlike the Iowa St. game, though, the Jayhawks gave maximum effort on every play. And unlike the Iowa State loss the Jayhawks played terrific defense, perhaps their best defense of the season. That was the difference, as the Jayhawks held the Sooners without a point on the Sooners' final seven possessions to preserve a slim lead and the win.

With nine minutes left in the game the Jayhawks trailed by three points, 43-40, but the Jayhawks out-scored the Sooners 8-2 over the next 4 minutes to take a slim lead. With 4:30 to play, the Jayhawks led 50-48. Then Drew Gooden hit a nifty turnaround, baseline shot from eight feet to give the Jayhawks a four-point, 52-48 lead. It was to be the Jayhawks' last fieldgoal of the game. On the Sooners' next possession they closed the gap to two points with a driving lay-up, and those were to be the Sooners' last points of the game.

The remaining four minutes were a nail-biting struggle during which the Jayhawks shut down the Sooners on seven straight possessions and the Jayhawks shut themselves down just as effectively. During that four-minute stretch the Jayhawks committed turnovers on two straight possessions, missed six-straight free throws and seven-of-eight overall, and were no more effective offensively in crunch time then they had been in blowing a six-point lead in the final three minutes three days earlier against Iowa St.

The game ended with a flurry of action. The Jayhawks forced OU into a miss with 30 seconds left in the game, and Lester Earl rebounded the ball on the baseline and was fouled. He missed both his free throws, but Jeff Boschee grabbed the rebound and was fouled with :29 left. After searching for the last four minutes for a bucket that would give the Jayhawks a two-possession lead it looked like the Jayhawks would finally get it, as Boschee is an 80% shooter at the line.

Boschee, though, missed both attempts, and many Kansas fans undoubtedly started to believe that this team simply wasn't capable of closing out a close game. However, OU's Eduardo Najera returned the favor and turned the ball over at mid-court just a few seconds later. Hinrich took the ball on the in-bounds play and was fouled almost immediately. He stepped to the line and made the first--an important free throw as it kept OU from being able to win the game with a three-pointer. But he missed the second, giving OU one last chance.

It also gave KU's defense one last chance to step up, which it did. OU worked hard for 19 seconds for a good shot, but couldn't find one. Finally, Oklahoma's Kelly Newton fired up a long off-balance three-pointer with about six seconds left. OU got the rebound and Newton tried a desperation three at the buzzer, which didn't come close.

As bad as the offense was down the stretch, the defense was just as good. Finally the Jayhawks figured out how to play tough defense against a good team without committing a foul on every other possession. The Jayhawks committed only 16 for the game, far below, their season average. In the last four minutes the Sooners didn't get a single open shot, and just as importantly the Jayhawks didn't commit any of the silly fouls that have hamstrung them so many times this year.

It was a close game throughout, and neither team was ever able to open a comfortable lead. The biggest lead the Jayhawks managed was seven points early in the second half, but it was short-lived. The Sooners answered it with a five-point run. Oklahoma never managed a lead of more than four points. Neither team put together any dramatic runs or ever seemed to seize the momentum with more than the most tentative grip. In the first half the lead changed hands11 times and the scored was tied an additional six times. At halftime the Jayhawks led by four points, 27-23, thanks to a three-pointer by Jeff Boschee with :40 left in the half. In the second half the Jayhawks held the lead for a longer period, but it was equally slim, and the Jayhawks trailed by three points with nine minutes to play.

For those who didn't see ABC's regional telecast of the game, you didn't miss anything that will end up on the highlight reels. KU struggled on offense the entire game. As a team the Jayhawks missed on the order of 15 layups and two-foot shots. Some of those were difficult attempts at put-backs. Mostly, though, they were dead misses of makeable shots. The Jayhawks had a hard time finding easy shots out of the half-court offense. Gregory, Bradford and Hinrich took very few perimeter shots. So the KU half-court offense was either Jeff Boschee shooting from outside, an attempt to get the ball inside to one of KU's big guys or an attempt to penetrate the lane off a dribble. OU played tenacious defense, though, which made it difficult to find seams into the lane either for a pass or a dribble.

OU was no better. They came into the game as the best three-point shooting team in the conference. For a change, however, the Jayhawks were able to cool off a perimeter team. OU cashed only 5-of-22 three-point shots and got very few open looks. Those three-pointers were well spread out, and OU was never able to use that weapon to put together the type of six or eight-point flurry that has so often broken the Jayhawks' backs this season.

Once again, the Jayhawks did a poor job of taking care of the ball. They committed 18 turnovers on the afternoon. It wasn't just that the team was making bad passes. Many of those turnovers came because KU's players tried to dribble the ball into traffic and either got the ball stripped or traveled. Nick Collison, who is in a bit of a slump, was the worst in this regard, turning the ball over 6 times in 20 minutes for a full third of the team's miscues.

Williams once again changed the starting lineup. He started little-used Ashante Johnson in place of Drew Gooden. Johnson responded with 10 points on 50% shooting and four rebounds in 16 minutes. After the game, Williams explained the switch of Johnson for Gooden by noting that Gooden had had a couple of horrid days in practice. The change in the lineup is likely temporary. Gooden played 23 minutes to Johnson's 16, and Gooden was one of the few Jayhawks who was consistently finding scoring opportunities. He finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. The remarkable thing is that Williams didn't reinsert Chenowith, whose starting spot Gooden had taken only two weeks ago. It wasn't remarkable because Chenowith has earned the spot--he hasn't--but because it shows how far he has fallen. Today Chenowith scored only two points--on free throws--and grabbed only three rebounds in 17 minutes. He attempted only one shot.

Gregory, playing fabulous defense, was KU's leading scorer with 11 points. Boschee added nine points on three-of-six three-point shooting.

The Jayhawks two Iowa freshman were held scoreless from the field. Collison scored four points on free throws and Hinrich's sole point was his key free throw in the closing seconds. But while Collison play probably his worst game as a Jayhawk, Hinrich despite only one point played a very solid game. His value right now to the Jayhawks is apparent from the fact that Williams played him for 36 minutes, a remarkable number given KU's depth this year. He once again started at point guard and ran the team quite well. He led the team in assists with four and committed only two turnovers.

Prodigal Forward: Lester Earl returned from his suspension today and played five minutes. In that span he grabbed four rebounds and played solidly on defense. While Earl is offensively challenged, he remains a tenacious rebounder and defender and is the one Jayhawk who can go toe-to-toe with bruising power-forwards like Iowa State's Marcus Fizer.

Many fans have criticized Williams for letting Earl return. Between the NCAA flap surrounding his stay at LSU, his prior problems with speeding tickets, and the swirl of rumors surrounding the vehicles he's been seen driving, many KU fans apparently hoped that Williams would use his DUI arrest as a basis for ending his career at KU.

Williams was in a no-win situation, though, as many other fans have criticized him for punishing Earl far more severely than other coaches have other players for similar infractions. Williams apparently decided to do what seemed fair to him after consulting the rest of his staff, and I'm not inclined to second-guess that decision. Williams explained his decision in his post-game comments.

Must Win: The game today was a must-win game. With the loss to ISU the Jayhawks are all but eliminated from a shot at the conference title. Had the Jayhawks lost today, though, any chance at a top-4 finish in the conference and a Thursday bye in the conference tournament would have become very slim and the talk would have begun about whether the Jayhawks would get into the NCAA tournament. Beyond that, two straight losses at home could have shattered the teams' already bruised confidence to a point that they might never have gotten back off the carpet. This team still is waiting to find itself on the offensive end with only a few games left. At least, though, today they got a reward for competing hard.

The game Wednesday against Nebraska will be another important test. Nebraska is a team that KU should beat easily. But nothing is coming easy for the Jayhawks right now. If the Jayhawks can get that road win it might be the start back out of the long slump that has left KU fans dazed the last month.

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