Forage through wreckage long enough and you’re bound to stumble upon a hidden treasure, which brings us to Saturday’s 23-point loss to Baylor in the Ferrell Center.
Not everything from the game needs to be filed in the mind’s trash can. Before it disintegrated into a rout, Kansas University’s leading scorer, freshman Ben McLemore, had some serious help from a quietly improving teammate.
Baylor big men Isiah Austin and Cory Jefferson combined for seven of the team’s eight blocked shots, and the figure might have reached double figures if not for the fancy footwork of KU freshman Perry Ellis.
In a second-half span that took just 2:44 off the clock, Ellis totaled six points, a rebound, an assist and a steal, helping KU turn a 17-point deficit into a six-point game. He played 22 minutes and produced 12 points, three rebounds and his first assist in 12 games. He looked more like a player who belonged in a big game than a freshman overwhelmed by the size of the bodies in the paint.
Ellis has had trouble finishing near the rim, but against the Bears he used patient, purposeful footwork to make five of seven field-goal attempts.
“I thought he was the best player for us today,” 10th-year Kansas coach Bill Self said afterward. “If anybody had a great game, it was Perry. He’s aggressive. He attacked them, and the guys he was scoring on or over or around were legitimate shot-blockers that were much bigger. I thought he did a really good job being aggressive.”
He has developed into a key reserve. In the past five games, Ellis has averaged 14.4 minutes, 8.0 points and 4.4 rebounds and has shot .522 from the field. In the first 26 games, his averages were 13.1 minutes, 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds and he shot .392 from the field.
I’ve always thought free-throw shooting and putting are similar in that they both reflect an athlete’s touch and open a window into the state of his mind. Settled minds result in made putts and free throws. Uncomfortable minds lacking confidence lead to puzzling slumps. In his first 26 games, Ellis was a .655 free-throw shooter, a .941 shooter (16-for-17) in the past five.
Ellis’ quick feet and ability to handle the ball led to his hitting two huge buckets that pulled Kansas within 61-55. On the first, he caught the ball at the foul line, blew by his man, 6-foot-8, 260-pound Rico Gathers, and scored.
Later, Ellis caught the ball on the right baseline and faced up against Austin (7-1, 220). Ellis took one hard dribble left in the lane, stopped, planted his pivot foot, spun around to the right and took a short jab, then a longer one. Austin’s and Gathers’ feet became entangled, they both fell to the ground, and Ellis scored, a move that made the players on the KU bench go wild, the game’s final cause for celebration for the visitors.