Apparently it's better to be elite than perfect.
With two of the most talented freshmen in the nation wearing Kansas University basketball uniforms, even crunch-time blunders from Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid turned into gold for the Jayhawks Tuesday night, as they escaped Lubbock, Texas, with a 64-63 victory over Texas Tech.
No. 8 KU (20-6 overall, 11-2 Big 12) didn't play awful at United Spirit Arena, home of the Red Raiders (13-13, 5-8), but the outcome might have flipped had center Embiid not had guard Wiggins' back — and vice versa — in the final minute.
Returning to the Kansas lineup after sitting out a game with an ailing back and knee, Embiid's final two points on an 18-point night came on his third offensive rebound, when he jammed in a missed dunk by Wiggins with just more than 30 seconds left in the second half.
Wiggins had pulled off a similar baseline drive and slam earlier in the night, but he hesitated for a split-second when TT big man Dejan Kravic slid over as a help defender. That threw Wiggins' timing off just enough that his dunk attempt hit the rim. But the 6-foot-8 guard's drive drew so much attention, Embiid had no problem gathering the mistake and stuffing it home to finish 6-for-7 from the floor.
After Texas Tech's Robert Turner hit two bonus free throws to put KU in a one-point deficit, Kansas had to get a basket to avoid its third conference loss. Embiid received the ball on the right block, and as he spun toward the baseline, he lost his handle. Wouldn't you know it, Wiggins was there to grab the loose ball and lay it in for the win, and finish with 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
A couple of unlikely and remarkable plays end up making the difference, offensively, in the final minute of a game controlled by Texas Tech from a pace standpoint — KU's 42 field-goal attempts were its second-lowest total of the season (Baylor held the Jayhawks to 40 attempts on Jan. 20).
Kansas was obviously the more talented team, and like it or not, that's how a lot of college basketball games are decided when the disparity is drastic between two rosters. Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith, who knows the game as well as anyone, had a terrific game plan and his players executed it to near perfection. In the end, it simply wasn't enough.
“Good teams like Kansas make plays like that. Great players make plays like that," Smith said. "Andrew’s a great player and great players make plays like that.“
You won't hear Kansas coach Bill Self complaining about his team winning in a tough situation on the road, but he surely will let his players know the kind of effort they gave late in the first half and through chunks of the second half, when Texas Tech was in control, won't win them many games in the postseason, which is now less than a month away.
1 — The Red Raiders easily could have won this game. "Wait, why am I smiling about this?" you may ask. Well, the Jayhawks didn't let them win. With a coach of Smith's caliber, in a packed house full of hostile fans and with Tech players likely believing a victory over KU could get them out of relative irrelevancy and one step closer to an NCAA Tournament berth, Kansas denied the Red Raiders the résumé-building victory they so desperately needed.
And despite the game-winner Wiggins converted on offense, his defensive stand seconds earlier had as much to do with the KU win. Texas Tech only turned the ball over nine times, hit 47% of its shot attempts and 6 of 12 from three-point range, but KU's defense came through in the final minute (with the exception of Embiid getting whistled for a blocking foul on Turner with 16 seconds left).
On Tech's previous last-minute possession, Wiggins blocked a Jaye Crockett jumper with the shot clock winding down, and when the denial fell back in Crockett's lap, Wiggins contested another jumper. The long rebound went to Tech's Jordan Tolbert, but Kansas forced a held ball, with the possession arrow in its favor.
2 — The real Joel Embiid is back. That evil twin of Embiid's — the one whose back and/or knee issues limited his range of motion and kept him to 7.5 points in his past four appearances — that guy is gone.
The real Embiid looked comfortable running the floor, and making assertive moves in the post. He finished with 18 points, 8 rebounds and a block, but the most promising number for KU is that he played 32 minutes. As Self talked about after the win, the 7-footer hadn't even practiced that much in the past week. Embiid said he felt like he was at about 90 percent.
So, barring any more injury setbacks, this is the kind of performance the Jayhawks can expect out of their center from Cameroon going forward.
3 — These young Jayhawks have confidence. Any time a team can pull off a last-second win, it gives the players an experience they can draw from in the future. The next time Kansas finds itself down a possession in the final minutes, Self can say, "Hey, remember how we finished strong at Texas Tech, and Jo Jo and Wiggs made those clutch plays? That's the mentality it's going to take to win this one."
What's more, the Jayhawks didn't let their struggles at Tech hold them back in the final minutes. Freshman guard Wayne Selden hadn't scored in the second half, and had only made 1 of 7 shots on the night when he rose up to drain a critical thee-pointer with less than three minutes to play.
Even when the Jayhawks are down, they believe they will win a close game.
1 — Although Embiid returned, Texas Tech beat Kansas in points in the paint, 30-24. Embiid's defense might not have caught up with his offense quite yet, and Kansas only blocked three shots (one for Embiid, two for Wiggins). That total, though, isn't as troubling as how easily Tech scored inside at times. Defensive breakdowns led to open dunks/layups. Kravic, a senior 7-footer only averaging 6.4 points a game — scored 13 on 6 of 8 shooting.
Part of Tech's success inside came with its 13 offensive rebounds. KU had 13, too, and out-rebounded TT, 28-26, overall. But the Red Raiders scored 19 second-chance points, compared to KU's 14.
2 — Perry Ellis didn't make a shot, and barely made an impact. After a career game against TCU on Saturday, the sophomore forward contributed to Kansas losing the points in the paint battle. Ellis missed all three of his shot attempts, found himself in foul trouble and was the only Kansas starter to not play 30-plus minutes (he played 26). All four of his points came at the free-throw line and he only secured two rebounds.
Hardly the only culprit for KU, Ellis was one of five Jayhawks to play at least 10 minutes but not produce more than six points as Wiggins and Embiid carried the load. Selden and Naadir Tharpe each scored six, Jamari Traylor had five in 12 minutes and Tarik Black scored four in 10 minutes.
Between Ellis, Selden and Tharpe, they combined to hit 3 of 18 field goals.
3 — Texas Tech made 47% of its shots. Since Self arrived at Kansas, his teams have won so often because of defense. In eight of Self's previous 10 seasons at KU, his teams have led the Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense. Currently, the Jayhawks are fifth in that category, at 41.2%.
Six of KU's last eight opponents have made 42% of their shots or better. For the Jayhawks to truly be considered one of the nation's top teams this season, they just need to turn it up a notch on the defensive end, and force foes into more difficult attempts.
There is no shame in winning ugly. Especially on the road. Even though Kansas had season-lows in rebounds (28) and assists (six), the Jayhawks managed to win. The ongoing struggle for this team seems to be getting everyone to produce to his fullest (or in that neighborhood) each and every game. A lot of that has to do with the team's youth. Consistency is the most difficult thing to grasp for most teams. Because KU starts three freshmen and a sophomore, that is inherently more challenging. If junior point guard Tharpe (1 of 7 shooting, 2 assists, 4 turnovers at TT) can set the tone in that department, the rest of the team likely will follow his lead.
Thanks to Iowa State's 85-76 win over Texas on Tuesday in Ames, Iowa, the Longhorns enter Saturday's 6:30 p.m. game at Allen Fieldhouse two games behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings. A win for the Jayhawks would avenge their road loss to UT and put them even closer to a 10th straight Big 12 championship.