Norman, Okla. — The Kansas Jayhawks left nothing to chance on Tuesday night.
Instead of a spirited effort that would take the conference race down to the final day and at least give the Jayhawks a glimmer of hope of extending their NCAA-record streak of 14 consecutive conference titles to 15, the 13th-ranked Jayhawks showed up dead flat at Lloyd Noble Center and watched Oklahoma run away from them from start to finish during a 81-68 OU victory that put the Jayhawks two games behind Kansas State and Texas Tech with one game to play.
The streak is dead. The Jayhawks look deflated. And, with just one game remaining in the regular season, they’re quickly running out of time to salvage what has been a season full of struggle.
Asked about the mood in the locker room following the game that officially put an end to KU’s streak, complete with OU fans chanting, “Streak is over” as the final minutes ticked away, Self said things were quiet.
“They’re down,” Self said. “It’s natural for them to be down right now. … We obviously got it handed to us right from the get-go.”
As for the significance of Tuesday night being a date that will be remembered forever in Big 12 lore, the KU players weren’t in much of a mood to talk about that.
“I don’t even think about it,” said junior forward Dedric Lawson, who tallied 18 points and 11 rebounds in the loss.
Added freshman David McCormack, who matched Lawson with a career-high 18 points on Tuesday night: “Same for me. Back of my mind, not really thinking about it.”
In many ways, Tuesday’s outing — KU’s eighth loss in 11 tries in true road games this season — was as bad as it has been all season.
And maybe that’s fitting. If something as incredible as a 14-year conference title streak is going to end, isn’t it appropriate that it go down in flames? After all, KU put together that streak largely by avoiding efforts like the one they put forth on Tuesday night in Norman.
Bodies flew in strange ways. Passes did, too. Careless fouls and sloppy turnovers outnumbered KU highlights 3 to 1. And several Jayhawks had trouble even doing the basics of catching, dribbling, passing and running.
There were bad numbers, too.
Kansas never led. At 24 points in the second half, Tuesday’s loss featured KU’s second worst deficit of the season (-33 at Texas Tech was the worst) and also the second biggest halftime deficit (13 vs. 25 at Tech) of the season.
And that’s to say nothing of KU’s shooting numbers, which landed at 41 percent from the floor, 23 percent from 3-point range and 64 percent from the free throw line.
“It felt like all the other (road) games,” Lawson said. “Where we can’t get stops and the basket seems small for us and looks big for the other team.”
Much like KU’s place in the Big 12 standings, however, which both K-State and Tech deserve plenty of praise for, Tuesday’s loss was as much a reflection of what OU did well as what Kansas did poorly.
Playing on Senior Night, with hope of snagging a signature win for their own postseason resume, the Sooners, in front of a half-empty but energetic home crowd, found a way to heat things up early, knocking in seven of their first eight shots, including four of their first five 3-point attempts to build an early 18-7 lead.
The Sooners (19-11 overall, 7-10 Big 12) eventually cooled off to the tune of 9-of-14 overall and 5-of-7 from 3-point range, but that didn’t last. By the break, the Sooners had hit 54 percent from the floor and 7 of 13 from 3-point range.
Even the Sooner fans were raining 3-pointers in this one. One lucky OU student drained a half-court shot for $7,000 during the break.
“It was kind of like the Texas Tech game,” freshman guard Ochai Agbaji said. “They started off pretty quick, got quick buckets and we were fighting to get back throughout the whole entire game.”
As has been typical for the Jayhawks on the road this season, nothing at all came easy in this one.
Even after the Jayhawks (22-8, 11-6) put together a 9-0 first-half run to climb back into the game — with quality offensive possessions and a couple of defensive stops — Oklahoma stole all of the momentum back with a single, end-to-end sequence.
The first part came when Quentin Grimes (3 points and 3 turnovers on 1-of-6 shooting in 26 minutes) threw the ball away at the top of the key with the Jayhawks looking to trim the OU lead to single digits for the first time since the Sooners led 15-7.
With Jamal Bieniemy racing toward the other end, all of the Kansas defenders who were back followed him across the floor, leaving Brady Manek (15 points in the first 13 minutes, 21 for the game) all alone to flush a two-handed, highlight jam that ended with Marcus Garrett in a poster and Bill Self calling his third timeout of the first half. OU led 30-18 with 7:22 to play in the half and used a 10-0 run in response to KU’s 9-point spurt to take a 41-28 halftime lead.
Kansas actually had a shot to trim OU’s lead to 10 or 11 just before the break, but Devon Dotson’s drive to the rim ended with him in the air and in trouble and led to KU’s ninth turnover of the half.
The second half was a mere formality, with OU putting on a feel-good show for its seniors and fans and Kansas trying to both keep the score respectable and scrap together some sort of momentum that might lead the Jayhawks, and others like, oh, say, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, to see something in this team worth getting excited about for the postseason.
Whether that comes or not remains to be seen. But it’s all that matters now.
“It was definitely hard," Agbaji said of falling in the fashion the Jayhawks did on Tuesday night. "We fought, but they played really good. We didn’t really come out to play tonight, honestly. It’s kind of devastating, but we’re trying to keep our heads up.”
Saturday’s finale at Allen Fieldhouse against Baylor has little meaning beyond KU looking to stay perfect at home this season and trying to keep the 3 seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament.
With Lagerald Vick still on a leave of absence, the Jayhawks don’t even have any seniors to honor on Senior Day.
So it’s all about the postseason now.
No more scoreboard watching. No more race. No more worrying about being the team that ends the streak. Bad breaks or not, this is it.
And the only thing left to do now is find a way to save face in the weeks ahead and look forward to perhaps starting another streak next season.
“It’s pretty cool that we hung in there for a pretty substantial amount of time,” Self said, reflecting on the end of the streak. “It’s great. But I don’t like the fact that this team will feel they’re the ones that let it down. There’ll be a lot of players from the last 14 years that will look at this team as the one that broke what they started and I don’t think that’s fair.”