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Monday, February 25, 2002

Langford’s huge three caps rally past NU

KU clinches Big 12 title thanks to clutch three-pointer by Langford

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— The first reaction was to celebrate, to jump up and down and pump his left fist in the air.

"It felt so good," freshman guard Keith Langford said after accepting a pass from Brett Ballard and swishing a game-winning three-pointer with 33 seconds left in top-ranked Kansas' 88-87, Big 12 title-clinching victory over Nebraska on Sunday at Devaney Center.

"I'll remember that my sophomore year, my junior year and my senior year. If it doesn't go in, we might not be undefeated. We might not be Big 12 champions. Â You want to celebrate something like that, but the game's not over yet. We still had to get back and play defense."

So the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Langford reacted to what he called the biggest shot of his young life with a quick fist pump, then raced back to the defensive end, where the Jayhawks stifled the Huskers twice in the final 20 seconds, preserving KU's 25th win in 27 tries and 14th league win against no losses.

KU needed a win in Lincoln to wrap up the undisputed regular-season conference title with two games to play.

"We gave up a lot of threes," Langford said after the Jayhawks surrendered a school-record 18 threes in 37 attempts, "but we were able to stop them at the end and win the league championship. Now next year in the media guide it's going to say, 'Big 12 champs,' not 'co-champs.'"

The Cornhuskers (12-13, 5-9) still had their chances to defeat the champs.

The first came at :20, when Jake Muhleisen's baseline jumper was rejected out of bounds by Nick Collison, who had five blocks in 22 foul-plagued minutes.

Given a second opportunity, the Huskers inbounded and couldn't get a shot, and John Turek called timeout at :12.

On the ensuing inbounds play, KU's Jeff Boschee swatted a pass into the backcourt. NU's John Robinson retrieved the ball at :09, hurried toward the lane and hoisted a well guarded 15-footer at :07.

Turek rebounded and threw up an off-balance stickback try at :03.

KU's Drew Gooden rebounded the miss and threw the ball high into the air as the KU players rejoiced after overcoming a 12-point second-half deficit.

"The way we played and struggled and had a lack of intensity for 30 minutes  to be able to win the game is extremely satisfying," Boschee, who scored 12 second-half points, said of KU's late heroics.

Boschee easily could have been the offensive hero, instead of Langford. In fact, Langford wanted that to be the case.

"When Brett walked the ball up the court, he called the play to my side," said the left-handed Langford, who immediately pointed and yelled for Ballard to work the ball toward Boschee. "You've got Kansas' all-time three-point shooter on the other side. I thought it'd be a good idea to go that way. When I got the ball, I was wide open so I decided to shoot. I haven't made that many this year, but it's a shot I practice every day."

Boschee was happy with the outcome.

"It shows how unselfish Keith is, wanting the ball to come to me," Boschee said of Langford, who had hit six of 29 threes coming into Sunday's game. "He's a good shooter. He's going to make a lot of shots like that in his career."

Ballard played the final minutes in place of freshman Aaron Miles because, KU coach Roy Williams said, Ballard was more of an outside threat and had proven better at fighting through screens.

"Coach Williams told me in the locker room Keith wanted me to run the play to the other side. I guess if it didn't work out coach could be pretty mad at me right now. But Keith stepped up and made the shot," said Ballard, who says he didn't hear Langford call for the play to go Boschee's way. "We got some stops on the other end after that. It shows the heart of this team. We were able to dig down and get it done."

They got it done on a day when coach Barry Collier's Cornhuskers were the aggressors.

Robinson and Cary Cochran each hit six three-pointers, and both finished with 22 points. Brian Conklin had four threes in six tries for 14 points.

"Nebraska outplayed us," Williams said. "I told Barry I'm almost sorry about the outcome. They were more deserving. We just feel very fortunate.

"I told the kids I hope they understand Nebraska outplayed us. We put ourselves in a bad position. At the same time we want 'em to make sure to feel great because they are champions of the league."

KU won despite the fact Kirk Hinrich played just 23 minutes and Collison 22 minutes because of foul problems.

Hinrich was able to go just nine minutes the second half because of fouls. He left the game for good with 45 seconds left and KU down, 87-85.

"It's hard to play without Kirk. It's hard to play without Nick," Williams said. "We went to a little zone to protect Kirk, and Nebraska was scoring three at a time. At one point I said to my assistants, 'Is it worth it to play the zone?'"

KU went back to the man defense down the stretch.

"We've got to do a better job getting up on those threes," Williams said.

Yet KU defended when it counted in the final 20 seconds.

"I told the kids, 'We need this experience,''' Williams said. "With 20 seconds left, I said, 'This is easy. We just gotta play defense for 20 seconds.' With 13 seconds left, I said, 'It's seven seconds easier. We only have to play defense for 13 seconds.'''

The Jayhawks, who thanks to the late three by Langford and defensive stand, were able to defend their No. 1 ranking, which they attained last Monday.

The next test is Wednesday's Senior Night contest against Kansas State. Tipoff is 7:05 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.

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