MANHATTAN, Kan. – Sherron Collins used to be a crybaby.
When he was in elementary school, afternoon pickup games at the Chicago Boys and Girls Club often ended with Collins storming out of the gym with his ball under his arm and tears trickling down his cheeks, devastated that his team had just lost.
"Happened all the time," Collins' older brother, Steve, said. "That's why everyone called him 'Crybaby.' He couldn't stand to lose. He hated it."
Therein rests Collins' secret.
For nearly two decades, his disgust for defeat has driven him to win.
More than anything, that is why Kansas threw Collins a life raft and pulled him out of gang-infested neighborhood by offering him a basketball scholarship four years ago. It's the key reason Collins was able to muster the guts to spearhead the Jayhawks' legendary comeback against Memphis in the 2008 national title game.
And Saturday, it explained why Collins demanded the ball in the final seconds of Kansas' biggest game of the season, which the No. 2 Jayhawks won in overtime 81-79 at rival Kansas State.
"He started driving to the basket, and everyone around me was standing up and screaming," his brother said. "But I didn't get emotional at all. I stayed calm and still. I knew Sherron would deliver. He always does."
The Kansas senior's latest dagger came on a hanging layup – "a push, a floater," he called it – that extended the Jayhawks' lead to 79-76 with 9.2 seconds remaining in overtime. Collins was fouled on the play and missed the free throw, but center Cole Aldrich snared the rebound and flung the ball back to the perimeter, where Kansas guard Brady Morningstar was fouled with 4.3 seconds left.
Morningstar swished both free throws to make it 81-76 before Jacob Pullen hit a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Jayhawks trotted off the court pointing to the "Kansas" emblem on their jerseys, ecstatic after a victory that will catapult them into the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings.
A few fans booed, but most of them were too deflated – either that or they had too much respect for Collins, who was nowhere to be found in the Kansas locker room. Asked if he said anything to his standout player after the game, coach Bill Self said: "I didn't get a chance. He was too busy getting interviewed by Erin Andrews."
"Sherron has a flair for the dramatic," he said.
Maybe that, Self joked, is why Collins left the game with leg cramps with 2 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in overtime and Kansas leading 75-74. Just when Jayhawks fans began to panic, Collins returned with about a minute left and made the game-deciding bucket.
Collins said the layup was the biggest play of his Kansas career other than the steal and 3-pointer that sparked Kansas' rally against Memphis two years ago.
"Had to be," Collins said. "Just because it happened here, at Kansas State, in this environment. It's a good way to remember my last game here."
Indeed, Kansas State wasn't much of a factor in the Big 12 when Collins arrived at Kansas in the fall of 2006. But now the No.11 Wildcats are 17-4 and arguably the second-best team in the league thanks to the recruiting efforts of Frank Martin, the defensive intensity of his players and the raucous flock of fans that make Bramlage Coliseum one of the toughest places to play in the conference.
"It was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Aldrich said. "Coach [Self] told us before the game, 'You've got to play like men to be able to win in a place like this. We won't face a [crowd] as tough for the rest of the season.'"
That's what made Collins' shot even more spectacular. As loud as the venue had been all day, you could've heard a peanut crack after his layup fell through the net.
At 20-1 overall, the Jayhawks are clearly the top team in college basketball. They may not have been three weeks ago, when they lost at Tennessee, but they are now.
Kansas has the best center in the game in Aldrich, who said he is playing with a freer mind following the recent death of his grandmother, who had battled a long illness. Aldrich is averaging 14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over his last five games.
"The big fella is back," Self yelled at Aldrich as he jogged to the locker room. "The big fella is back."
The other two players who are making the biggest difference for Kansas in recent weeks are forward Marcus Morris and Morningstar, a guard.
The 6-foot-8 Morris – he's averaging 17.8 points and 8.1 rebounds over his last six games – is the perfect complement to Aldrich down low, and his fiery play has been infectious to his teammates.
With Morningstar in the game, the offense runs more smoothly than it does with Tyshawn Taylor, who is more athletic but is also mistake-prone and less-apt to do the little things that made a good team great. Morningstar is also a better defender.
"I like the way we're playing right now," Morningstar said. "But we can always get better."
That's a scary thought, but you can bet the Jayhawks will with Collins – the second-best guard in the nation. No one is going to confuse Collins with Kentucky's John Wall, who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft.
But he definitely means as much to his team. Not just on the court, but off of it, too.
"He realizes this is his last rodeo," Self said of Collins. "He's always done a good job, but now he's doing his best job yet of dragging everyone else along and being a great leader as far as teaching others."
Collins is on pace to end his career as the winningest player in the history of Kansas' tradition-rich program. He'll likely finish as the school's fifth leading scorer and appears poised to lead the Jayhawks to their sixth straight Big 12 title.
"Being 6-0 in the Big 12 means more than being ranked No. 1," Collins said after the game.
A rehearsed statement? Maybe for some players.
But after four years, it's evident now that Collins means it. He gets it.
That's why those tears that used to be so commonplace have all dried up now. The only people crying are his opponents.