Kansas City, Mo. Disregard the calendar. March arrived Saturday afternoon inside the Sprint Center. Thoughts of bubbles and brackets, seedings and sites, RPI and strength of schedule, all were for the moment swallowed in the wake of a magnificent basketball game.
For a remarkable second-half stretch in a Big 12 semifinal matchup, Kansas University and Texas A&M performed like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, combatants standing toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring, stinging each other with shots that should have spelled the end for the recipient, but didn't.
Both teams refused to lose, but since the rules dictate one had to be declared the victor, the final scoreboard gave it to Kansas, 77-71. If the term "quality loss" ever applies, chalk up one for Texas A&M in its argument for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field.
"Heck of a college basketball game," Aggies coach Mark Turgeon said.
This game packed with great plays and clutch shots didn't leave the losers with regrets, rather with the feeling they finally have become a team.
Even in a game played at such a high level of skill, a March game in every way, one player stood above the rest. When he's on, few college basketball players look better than KU junior Brandon Rush. In a second half in which he scored 20 of his career-high 28 points, Rush turned the rim into his personal ring of fire. Everything he threw up went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.
Good thing for KU that Rush had his best game because the Aggies caught fire, too.
With 8:08 left, Bryan Davis banked in a desperation three-pointer to pull A&M within five. Rush responded with a three, and A&M's Josh Carter hit a three from the corner to cut the deficit to five again. Sherron Collins buried a three to push it back to eight. That could have sent Kansas on its way to a blowout, except that the Aggies would have none of that.
At the 5:21 mark, Beau Muhlbach nailed a three that cut the margin to two points. Rush, playing in a way that screamed, "Whatever you can do I can do better," hit a pair of free throws and a three-pointer to push the lead back to seven points. Not for long. Joseph Jones hit a three to cut the margin to four points, where it would stay until Mario Chalmers came up with a rebound and looked up the court. He saw Darnell Jackson, who brings a football mentality and an NFL tight end's size, speed and hands to work with him every game. Jackson had sprinted just a step ahead of the defense, and Chalmers threaded the needle for Jackson to finish with a dunk that put KU up 72-66 with 2:29 left.
A&M kept battling. Muhlbach would hit another three and Dominique Kirk a pair of free throws.
Showing it has come a long way since December, when closing games was problematic, Kansas put this one away when Russell Robinson used a series of screens to drive down the lane and drop one in for a 75-71 lead with 29 ticks remaining.
"They played great, we played great," KU coach Bill Self said.
Today, Kansas battles Texas for the Big 12 tournament title, which ought to come with the bonus of a No. 1 seed, given that Tennessee lost Saturday to Arkansas. It's March, all right.