San Jose, Calif. Brandon Rush didn't feel jubilation after winning the biggest game of his college basketball career.
"I feel relief," Rush, Kansas University's sophomore forward, gasped after the No. 1-seeded Jayhawks somehow survived a 6-for-13 free-throw effort down the stretch to clip ball-hawking, defensive-minded No. 4 seed Southern Illinois, 61-58, in an NCAA West Regional Sweet 16 game Thursday night in HP Pavilion.
"We are fortunate to get that win. We didn't play too well. But we got it. We got it. I am proud we got it," Rush added of a victory that propelled the Jayhawks into Saturday's Elite Eight contest against UCLA.
That Elite Eight showdown will tip off at 6:05 p.m. in HP Pavilion.
Rush, who scored a team-leading 12 points - believe it or not, he was the only Jayhawk to finish in double figures - converted on what KU coach Bill Self called "the biggest possession of the season."
He hit a bank shot in the lane with :25 to play, upping a 59-58 lead to three points.
"I knew somebody was going to have to step up. I said I would be that player," Rush said.
"It was a new play coach put in at the end of the game: 'Just give it to the guard, let 'em try to penetrate or pitch ahead to our big guy posting up. If you get the chance, just pull up and take it,'" explained Rush, who hit six floor shots without a miss.
26 Points scored by SIU off KU's 19 turnovers10 Points scored by KU off SIU's 15 turnovers36.8 SIU's field-goal percentage59.5 KU's field-goal percentage10 Points scored by each team from the free-throw line4 Free throws missed by SIU9 Free throws missed by KU7-for-31 The teams' combined three-point shooting
Of course, the game was not yet over after Rush's bucket.
KU (33-4) would have to sweat it out against the Salukis (29-7) - who scrapped to grab a whopping 17 offensive rebounds to KU's six - until the final buzzer.
SIU's Jamaal Tatum, whose three and two helped SIU slice a late four-point deficit to one (59-58) with 47 seconds left, missed a three at :11. Randal Falker grabbed the offensive rebound, but had the ball swiped by Russell Robinson. Robinson fed ahead to Julian Wright, who was fouled going in for a dunk at :02.
Wright missed both free throws - "I was ready to get back on 'D,' but you've got to hit the free throws first," Wright said - but was able to exhale after Tony Young missed a halfcourt heave at the buzzer.
"This is new for all of us. We're on a great ride now. We're able to practice again and play another game," Wright said.
It looked as if KU had hit a season-ending bump in the road against a Saluki team that shrugged off an early 10-2 deficit to lead 33-27 four minutes into the second half.
But KU stayed close and grabbed a 47-45 lead on a bank shot by Robinson with 6:19 to play. KU actually took the lead for good on a Darnell Jackson inside hoop at 5:03, giving the Jayhawks a 50-49 advantage, though the game went all the way down to the wire.
"It was a fabulous win," Self said of the victory against "the toughest team we've faced all year.
"The game went exactly the way I thought it would. I thought because of their swarming defense, the first one to 60 would win the game. I really thought that.
"We had to shoot 62 percent to score 61 points. That doesn't happen often. I'm proud of the way we won a grind-it-out game."
So proud he deemed it, "Our biggest win at KU (in his four seasons). Coaches always take great pride in nailbiters. But the game is Saturday. Let's say what it is, the game is Saturday. This puts us in position to win that game (and reach Final Four)."
The players say Self, as well as bench players Darnell Jackson (eight points, five rebounds), Darrell Arthur (nine points, two boards) and Rodrick Stewart (three points, good defense in nine minutes), were instrumental in helping KU reach the Elite Eight contest.
"Every time we came to the bench, coach said, 'Don't get down. Don't get down. It's a long game,''' Robinson said. "He told us to take it possession by possession.
"Coach said, 'It's a long game. That's a good team,''' Robinson added. "We've got a lot of respect for Southern Illinois. More now than before the game. That's probably the best team we played all year."
The Jayhawks, who have won 14 straight games, didn't look pretty despite hitting 59.4 percent of their shots. KU had 19 turnovers.
But KU did win, something the Jayhawks say simply wouldn't have happened a year ago.
"Last year, I think we definitely would have lost this game because of our lack of experience and our lack of execution late in the games," Rush said.
"We'd have lost the game last year. We had guys not give up. We didn't get down. We showed our maturity today," Robinson noted.
Self agreed the season would be over had last year's team faced such an adversity-ridden game.
"No. No. We wouldn't have won that game last year. We weren't ready. Three freshmen, two sophomores," Self said.
"Tonight wasn't as much fun for our guys, not as much fun as Chicago," he added of last week's victories over Niagara and Kentucky. "In Chicago, they played the way they wanted. Tonight, they couldn't. We were fortunate to play their (Salukis') style and won.
"We are not savoring anything here at Kansas," Self continued. "At Kansas, you don't savor very long. We happen to be playing Saturday. I'll enjoy this, laugh, smile, giggle, but not celebrate. We came here to win a two-game tournament, and that's what we're out to do."