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Sherron Collins grabbed the final rebound of the game, then after tossing the basketball high in the air, found himself face-to-face with Kansas University’s other preseason All-American — Cole Aldrich.
“Cole was fired up. He said, ‘You put us on your back.’ He told me I was the best guard in the country,” Collins said after scoring a career-high 33 points — 19 the second half — in the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks’ 71-66 victory Wednesday over spunky, upset-minded Cornell University in Allen Fieldhouse.
Collins hit nine of 16 shots and 13 of 14 free throws. He converted what turned out to be the biggest bucket and foul shot of the game, an ‘and-one’ that turned a 64-63 deficit into a 66-64 advantage with 41 precious seconds remaining.
Running a set play to perfection, the 5-foot-11 Collins drove the lane and converted a driving layup while getting bumped by former Burlington High player Geoff Reeves.
“It’s, ‘Get the ball to No. 4 and get out of his way.’ We were trying to open up a lane,” KU coach Bill Self said.
Collins gave his version, saying: “We drew Brady (Morningstar) up to fake a ball screen. He (Reeves) thought I was going to go that way. I knew I could get past the first defender. I didn’t want to draw a charge. Coach Self drew it up perfectly.”
Of course, the game was not yet over, not by a long shot.
Collins hit one of two free throws at :25.2, and Ryan Wittman (24 points, 7-of-17 shooting, five of 14 threes) drained two free throws at :16.8 as KU led, 67-66.
Collins cashed two free throws and upped the lead back to a safe three points, 69-66, at :15.5.
Wittman, with Morningstar in his face, misfired on a three at :09. Xavier Henry grabbed the rebound, then, after getting fouled, hit two free throws that assured KU of its 51st straight victory in Allen Fieldhouse.
The Wittman miss was about as big as the shot and free throw Collins made to give the Jayhawks the lead for good.
“We told our guys to foul if it was under seven (seconds to play),” Self said. “What happened is, he got it up at 10 seconds. Brady defended it well. Brady did a good job defensively against a very good player.”
Another huge play was a three from the corner buried by Tyrel Reed with 3:55 left. That shot — following a bullet pass by Collins — gave KU a 61-60 lead, pretty important considering the Jayhawks trailed by as many as eight points early in the second half and six with 8:11 to play.
“That’s probably the biggest shot Tyrel has made in his career,” Self said.
Reed, who finished with three points in 12 minutes, agreed. Sort of.
“I guess it could have been. I mean, I don’t think of it that way,” said Reed, who played nine minutes the second half, doing a good job of guarding Louis Dale (10 points). “I think of it as another shot, but it was fun being out there.”
Collins, who surpassed his previous career high of 32 points set against North Dakota State in last year’s NCAA Tournament, had a lot of fun, “doing what I do.”
“When we were down 49-43 with 11 minutes left, I told myself I was going to make every play,” Collins said. “I wanted to get to the basket and make something happen. We needed a spark. I was going to be that spark. Some of our young fellas are still not used to that type situation. It was like a tournament game. I wasn’t going to let us lose.”
Self has grown to love that attitude.
“To me, I think he’s the best point guard in the country,” Self said. “Tonight he showed he’s definitely the best point guard in the country. He was fabulous and put us on his back. He impacts the college game more than any player I’ve coached.
“I told our guys after the game that two things won us the game: Sherron and the crowd. We get 15,500 or whatever making noise. If our fans would have stayed home because of the weather, there’s a good chance we’d be 13-1 instead of 14-0. I am very thankful for that.”
The Jayhawks were thankful to beat the two-time defending Ivy League champs.
“No disrespect to anybody we’ve played. That’s the best team we’ve played, though,” Self said.
Collins was just as impressed.
“They aren’t a big-name school. We didn’t overlook them by any means,” he said. “We had hands in their face. One time I had my hand on his (Wittman’s) nose, and he still made it. Wittman’s a terrific player. I told him that on the court.”
Self had a question for Cornell coach Steve Donahue in the handshake line.
“I asked him if he thought they played well. He said, ‘Yes,’’’ Self said. “I said, ‘Good, because I thought we played well, too.’’’
Nobody played better than Collins as Aldrich attested to in his face-to-face meeting after the final horn.
“It’s the thing we need from him every night, to get that competitive juice going and say we’ve got to hunker down and play defense like he did,” Aldrich said.
The Jayhawks will meet Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. Central time Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn.