Kansas sophomore Bobby Pettiford’s wild put-back of a deep 3-point miss with 0.2 seconds to play in overtime, helped No. 3 Kansas survive a scare from Wisconsin, 69-68 in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Thursday.
While the rebound and scoop shot that won the game set off a celebration that featured Kansas fans chanting his name, neither Pettiford nor Kansas coach Bill Self left the gym thinking the shot could be replicated.
“If he thinks about it, he doesn’t make it,” Self said. “That was just natural and fortunately he got it up. That was an athletic play. … I don’t know that he could make it again in 10 attempts, but it was good that he made the one that he did. It was a great shot.”
Pettiford’s shot came off of a rare crash to the glass by the 6-foot-1 guard who is more accustomed to getting back on defense when shots go up.
In this instance, with Kansas down one in the final seconds, there was no reason to worry about defense once Zach Clemence let his 26-foot 3-point attempt fly after KU junior Jalen Wilson’s drive to the rim was cut off by the Wisconsin defense.
“Once he shot it, I just ran full speed, the ball fell in my hands so I just flicked something up and it went in,” a smiling Pettiford said after the win. “Kind of a little bit of luck and skill at the same time.”
The finish was in complete contrast to the way this game was played throughout. Both teams struggled offensively out of the gate but Kansas took control midway through the first half when Gradey Dick hit a pair of 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
That sparked a 27-14 run by Kansas to close the final 11 minutes of the first half and KU went into the locker room leading 33-20.
Despite the Jayhawks leading for 33:15 of the 45-minute game, Wisconsin never went away.
Kansas led by 15 (41-26) midway through the second half, but saw that lead disappear completely when Wisconsin took a 52-50 lead. KU responded to that deficit with a 10-0 run, but saw that cushion evaporate, as well.
“They had outplayed us totally,” Self said of the final few minutes of regulation and overtime.
While Wisconsin’s style dictated the way the game was played at critical moments, Kansas contributed to their own plight.
The Jayhawks turned it over 13 times on Thursday — compared to six by Wisconsin — and also made just 12 of 21 shots at the free throw line for 57.1%.
There were elements that went KU’s way, though, too. Wisconsin entered the game having given up just nine 3-pointers to its opponents in four games all season and the Jayhawks hit nine in this one alone.
Dick and McCullar made three apiece and Wilson hit a pair. None was bigger than McCullar’s bomb from the top of the key that forced overtime.
After Wisconsin went up by three following a Tyler Wahl bucket late and a pair of free throws by Connor Essegian, KU’s Zach Clemence misfired on a potential game-tying 3-pointer from the corner with 16 seconds to play. Clemence, however, chased down his miss and fired a pass to McCullar at the top of the key while falling out of bounds. McCullar did the rest, stepping into the shot with confidence and knocking it down.
That was a welcome sight for a Jayhawk who opened the game 0-of-5 from the floor and 0-for-4 from 3-point range. McCullar finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, making seven of his next 11 shots after the cold start.
“I tried to keep playing,” McCullar said of his approach after the rough start early. “My teammates kept encouraging me and I finally hit one late when we needed it.”
Most everything that happened late started with Wilson, who scored 29 points on 9-of-20 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds in another outstanding individual effort by KU’s leading scorer.
Wisconsin knew that would be KU’s plan, though, and started to send multiple bodies Wilson’s way to keep him from beating them. Wilson remained poised in those moments and did what he could to get to the free throw line or find opportunities for others.
The late chance by Pettiford, who had not scored all afternoon, was not a direct result of a play made by Wilson. But his presence and willingness to put the game on his shoulders makes things easier for others.
Wilson, Pettiford, McCullar and their teammates all could not care less who gets the credit as long as the result goes Kansas’ way.
“Just finding a way to win,” Wilson said of the mindset late. “No matter what’s going on or how good or bad we’re playing, we’ve just got to find a way to win and that’s what we did.”
Added Self: “We were not the best team today. We made some plays that allowed us to win, though, and I’m excited to get the win and happy we get the chance to play in the championship game tomorrow.
“We didn’t think it’d be a pretty game going into it, and it lived up to its billing from my standpoint.”
Kansas will take on No. 22 Tennessee in Friday’s championship game, which is slated for 6:30 p.m. on ESPN. The Volunteers, coached by former Texas coach Rick Barnes, knocked off USC, 73-66, in Thursday's other semifinal matchup.