If Iowa State falls a marquee win short of making the NCAA tournament in three weeks, the Cyclones can blame their misfortune on a questionable call that went against them in the final seconds of regulation Monday night.
Iowa State led Big 12 leader Kansas by two points when freshman Georges Niang appeared to draw a charging foul on Elijah Johnson for plowing into him driving to the basket with seven seconds to go in the second half. Instead referees ignored the contact and assessed a loose ball foul to Niang, enabling Johnson to sink two free throws with five seconds to tie the game and then score 11 of his career-high 39 points in overtime to propel his team to a 108-96 victory.
The apparent blown call at the end of regulation left Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg irate enough that he intercepted one of the refs leaving the floor and yelled something at him. He calmed down by the time reporters asked him about the call his postgame press conference.
“I thought Georges made a heck of a play by stepping in there and drawing contact,” Hoiberg said. “But, hey, it happens in this game. It didn’t go our way. It’s one of those things ... you move past it and try to get on to the next play."
Hoiberg is correct the Cyclones have to take responsibility for squandering a five-point lead with 35 seconds to go and for not responding well when Kansas forced overtime, but frustration over the call is certainly understandable. Blown calls went against both teams, but the one on the final possession of regulation is magnified because of the stakes.
First of all, referees had to make either a block or charge call on Johnson's drive. There was too much contact for a no-call. Secondly, the refs had already blown a key call just seconds earlier, assessing a foul to Kansas forward Kevin Young that should have been the fifth on star center Jeff Withey.
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Even worse for Iowa State, Monday night's heart-breaker arguably wasn't even its most painful loss to Kansas of the season. Freshman guard Ben McLemore banked in a late 3 to force overtime of a Jan. 9 game in Lawrence that the Cyclones had controlled throughout.
Had Iowa State managed to eke out a victory over Kansas in either one of those games, the Cyclones would be all but certain to make the NCAA tournament and the Jayhawks would be in serious jeopardy of not extending their Big 12 title streak to nine. Instead Iowa State (19-9, 9-6) remains squarely on the bubble with three regular season games remaining and Kansas (24-4, 12-3) still owns a share of first place along with rival Kansas State.
The officiating will overshadow everything else that happened in Ames Monday night, but the Jayhawks deserve credit for their resilience. They survived a desperate opponent, a wild atmosphere and a 3-point shooting barrage the likes of which won't soon be repeated.
Iowa State sank 17 of 41 3-pointers, only falling below 50 percent from behind the arc when the situation became desperate late in overtime. The Cyclones were so torrid from the perimeter that point guard Korie Lucious even knocked down an unintentional 3-pointer when his top-of-the-key alley-oop pass somehow went through the rim.
Although 19 points from Travis Releford and 13 apiece from Jeff Withey and Kevin Young helped Kansas survive the onslaught, the real hero for the visiting team was Johnson.
It was Johnson who buried a pair of critical 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds of regulation to even give Kansas a chance to tie the game on its final possession. It was Johnson who stared down the roaring crowd and sank two foul shots to force overtime. And it was Johnson whose desperation 25 footer at the shot clock buzzer extended Kansas' overtime lead to seven with 54 seconds to go and left Hoiberg's young son in tears in his mother's arms.
The 39-point, seven-assist performance from Johnson was perhaps more significant than the victory itself for Kansas.
Johnson's erratic shooting and ill-advised decisions were partially responsible for Kansas' three-game losing streak earlier in February. Though he has been better the past few games playing off ball alongside point guard Naadir Tharpe, Monday night was the first concrete sign he has moved past that poor stretch.
As a result of the victory, Kansas can turn its focus toward defeating West Virginia, Texas Tech and Baylor to end the season in order to clinch at least a share of yet another league championship. Iowa State, on the other hand, can only hope to bounce back from a rare night in Ames when Hilton Magic ran dry.
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