In the history of college basketball, only John Wooden-era UCLA has ever won 13 straight conference championships.
Kansas is now one victory away from matching that.
The Jayhawks tightened their white-knuckle grip on the Big 12 this week with back-to-back thrilling victories over their two toughest challengers. Five nights after staging a miraculous late rally to edge West Virginia, Kansas scored the final eight points of Saturday’s showdown at Baylor to emerge with a 67-65 win.
Those two narrow victories give third-ranked Kansas (24-3, 9-2) an all but insurmountable three-game advantage over both the Bears (22-5, 9-5) and Mountaineers (20-6, 8-5) with four regular season games remaining. To clinch at least a share of the Big 12 title, the Jayhawks need only one more victory. It will take just two more Kansas wins to guarantee an outright championship.
The biggest play in Saturday’s victory came from forward Landen Lucas, who spent the first couple years of his Kansas career buried on the bench but has emerged as by far the Jayhawks’ most valuable big man as a senior. When Kansas guard Devonte Graham missed what would have been a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 15 seconds to play, Lucas out-battled the powerful Baylor frontline for the offensive rebound and drew a foul in the process.
For Lucas, a 59.1 percent free throw shooter who had missed 10 of his previous 12 attempts, the go-ahead foul shots were no guarantee. But the 6-foot-10 senior lived up to the vow he made earlier this week and knocked down both the go-ahead free throw and an insurance foul shot to give Kansas a two-point lead.
It was fitting that Lucas was the hero on Saturday because he is the unsung key to Kansas’ season thus far.
With Carlton Bragg not taking a step forward as a sophomore, Udoka Azubuike out for the season due to injury and Dwight Coleby and Mitch Lightfoot not yet ready to contribute, Lucas is Kansas’ only dependable big man. Frank Mason is a national player of the year candidate and Josh Jackson is a future lottery pick, however, Lucas may be the Jayhawks’ most indispensable player.
The possession after Lucas’ free throws was Baylor’s last stand, its final chance to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Jayhawks and restore some intrigue to the conference race. Baylor coach Scott Drew called timeout to set up a play, but the outcome was not what he hoped.
When two Jayhawks ran at Baylor point guard Manu Lecomte as the clock ticked down, he did not have the poise to find an open teammate. Lecomte instead hoisted a contested jump shot that missed badly, sealing the Bears’ fate.
Putting the ball in Lecomte’s hands was a questionable decision considering he had been hobbling since turning his ankle earlier in the game. The injury was significant enough that Drew had been hiding Lecomte on defense by having him guard LaGerald Vick instead of Mason or Graham.
The dramatic finish to the game was appropriate for an entertaining clash of two teams with aspirations of receiving No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The two Big 12 powers traded momentum-swinging runs in the second half, Kansas surging in front with an 8-0 run midway through the half only to have Baylor answer right back with a 9-0 run of its own.
Ultimately it was Kansas who showed tremendous mental toughness and struck the final blow.
Mason scored 23 points and dished out 8 assists. Jackson tallied 16 points and four blocks. But Lucas, the Jayhawks’ unheralded hero, made the play that pushed his team over the top and one win closer to another conference title.
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