The best player in college basketball had just played all but a minute of a triple-overtime game. He’d scored 46 points, two shy of the all-time Big 12 record: Step-back 3s, dazzling crossovers in the lane, tip-ins over big men in the post. But the senior’s last-gasp 3 had slapped off the backboard at the buzzer, and his Oklahoma Sooners had just lost one of the greatest regular-season college basketball games in history. In a postgame interview on the court, Hield said all he wanted was a bed.
As Hield trudged off the court in Allen Fieldhouse — where Kansas had just won college basketball’s first No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in more than two years, 109-106, a game that was as thrilling as it was well-played — something funny happened. Plenty of Kansas fans had already walked to their cars, but plenty remained inside the arena. And those who did stood from their seats. They gave Hield a standing ovation.
Bill Self had seen this happen before on his home court, an opposing player gaining that sort of appreciation from the home crowd. He had seen it happen exactly once: March 4, 2007. The player was Kevin Durant. He’d scored 25 points in the first half, then sprained his ankle in the second half. When Durant limped back out to the court from the locker room, the Kansas crowd rose and applauded.
"They knew they were witnessing something special," Self said just before midnight on Monday. "That was a special performance by Buddy tonight. He got 46 points on 23 shots. That was pretty special. We actually did a really good job holding him to 46."
I know that, if you did not stay up late to watch the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown, you may think this is an overly breathless account of what was really only a pretty good basketball game. It is not that. If you didn’t watch the game, I will not recount it for you, because you do not deserve that. The game featured dozens of dives to the court, shots that were swatted into the stands, three technical fouls, plenty of negligent officiating on both sides, an iconic performance by a star player and a heroic defensive effort to try and stop him. It was two beautiful basketball teams in a tit-for-tat tradeoff of back-and-forth basketball in its finest. "We played our butts off, they played their butts off," Self said afterward.
No, this is not a reporter sitting in the media room, his ears still ringing, being a prisoner of the moment. Monday night’s battle between two Big 12 rivals who ought to both be considered national title contenders really was one of the best regular-season college basketball games in history. Not just because it was only the 40th time the No. 1 team in the AP Poll has played the No. 2 team in the AP Poll. And not just because the game kept going, and going, and going, as if that guy from the Buffalo Wild Wings commercial kept pressing the button to dial up another overtime.
Oklahoma, not a particularly deep team, played 21 minutes without making a substitution before it was forced to sub when Jordan Woodard fouled out with 15 seconds to play in the third overtime. By the second overtime, I was turning to the Kansas beat reporter who was seated next to me on the baseline, and we’d just giggle. It was not only the most thrilling college hoops game of the season — it was the highest-level basketball we’ve seen played this season, maybe longer.
"Craziest game I’ve ever been a part of," said Kansas point guard Frank Mason, who sealed the game by stealing a Hield inbounds pass with 12 seconds left in the third overtime and then making his free throws.
(An aside: Mason’s steal was one of the many questionable calls, or in this case, non-calls, in this game. As plenty of people pointed out on Twitter, Mason was standing too close to Hield as Hield inbounded the ball. "Right before the play started the ref told me not to get close to the line," Mason said. "But after he handed the ball in, there was nothing he could do. So I took a step closer and went all out on the deny. I got a deflection and the steal." But a little end-game controversy makes a great game even better, doesn’t it?)
"Given what’s at stake and given the stage it was in, I don’t think I’ve been in one better," said Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who has coached more than 1,000 college and NBA games.
So what was at stake? Primacy in the Big 12, for one. The No. 1 ranking in the country, that’s another. And more than that. Because the last time Oklahoma had won at Allen Fieldhouse was Feb. 17, 1993. That was 10 months before Buddy Hield was born. In his 12-plus seasons at Kansas, Bill Self has lost only nine home games. Meanwhile, he’s won 11 Big 12 championships. For Oklahoma to pull off the upset would have indicated a possible changing of the guard, at least for one season, in the Jayhawk-ruled Big 12.
But Kansas did what Kansas does: The Jayhawks won at home. Sure, they got some breaks, none bigger than Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin missing the front end of a one-and-one with a couple seconds left in regulation, which could have won the game for Oklahoma. But they did it, and they will stay as the top-ranked team in the nation, and the team I believe is best-positioned to win it all.
After the game, Perry Ellis, Devonte Graham and Landen Lucas sat in the Kansas locker room, taking the tape off their ankles and the weight off their shoulders. They started talking about something: After Monday night’s loss, where would Oklahoma be ranked in next week’s AP Poll? Would the loss bump the Sooners down to fourth, or fifth, or lower?
It shouldn’t. I don’t think so. Neither did the Kansas players. The poll should stay as it is: Kansas No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2. Then the discussion can move on to everybody else in this wide-open college hoops season.
"We don’t even think they should move down a spot," Graham said. "That’s one of the best teams in the nation."
For these two teams to meet three more times. On Saturday, Feb. 13, where Buddy Hield will get his shot at revenge on his home court. Then in Kansas City at the Big 12 tournament.
And then in April in Houston, where, if the gods of college basketball are fair-minded and in love with guts-out, beautiful basketball, these two teams will have another chance to reprise this January game in this season’s Final Four.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.