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Monday, February 6, 2006

Keegan

Keegan: Jayhawks exorcise demons

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The star, Brandon Rush, played the first half with blurred vision brought about by a poke to the eye. The next-best player, Mario Chalmers, often looked like a freshman for a change and had eight turnovers to show for it. Reliable Russell Robinson missed all but two of his 10 shots.

And what a beautiful, ugly victory it was for Kansas University's toughening young basketball team.

The imperfections played a part in what made KU's 59-58 come-from-behind thriller over No. 19 Oklahoma a perfect outcome on Sunday afternoon in Allen Fieldhouse, college basketball's version of party heaven.

A blowout victory wouldn't have prepared the Jayhawks (15-6 overall, 6-2 Big 12 Conference) as well for future battles. Consider all the demons this victory purged.

It no longer can be said KU can't close tight games. The losses to Arkansas, Nevada, Saint Joseph's, Kansas State and Missouri raised doubts about KU's killer instinct.

Chalmers buried those with his game-winning shot, and Rush made sure no tomb raiders dug them back up by blocking Terrell Everett's shot with seven seconds left.

KU coach Bill Self will have plenty of material from the game film to keep the Jayhawks humble in the likely event they show up in this week's Top 25, another reason the outcome was ideal.

Ask any salty old baseball manager worth the tobacco spittle in front of his dugout seat what defines a winning pitcher, and he'll say it's the ability to get it done on those days he doesn't have his good stuff. The Jayhawks found a way.

During the rally from 16 points down with inside of 10 minutes left, C.J. Giles, aka Lazarus, energized the team defensively, Rush did so on both ends, and Julian Wright helped Giles and Rush get crucial rebounds. Rush took Everett, who had driven and shot his way to 10 first-half points, right out of the game after switching onto him with about five minutes remaining.

"He's our leading scorer, our best rebounder, and as good a one-on-one defender as we have," Self said of Rush.

And then there was the always-entertaining Wright.

Former KU great Al Kelley isn't as quick today as when he backed up Oscar Robertson and Jerry West on the U.S. Olympic team, yet he's still quick enough to be the first out of his seat when Wright does the spectacular, such as when, with his back to the basket, he whipped a pass over his shoulder that Rush turned into a reverse layup.

Kelley enjoys watching Wright so much he invented a nickname for the wiggly forward: "The Noodle." When Wright messes up, Kelley is the first to wince, so he pretty much spends the entire game alternately standing and grimacing. On this afternoon, Kelley beamed more than he frowned. Wright repeatedly hit jumpers and finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and countless bruises incurred from mixing it up with bigger bodies. It was appreciated by the paying customers.

The relationship between the team and crowd was at its symbiotic best.

"I couldn't be more proud of the players," Self said. "They didn't quit. The crowd wouldn't let them quit. The crowd was awesome."

And so was the game, blemishes and all.

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