Trust in Johnson pays off for Kansas

AMES, Iowa -- On Monday night, Elijah Johnson delivered an apology that momentarily turned his celebratory postgame news conference into a Richard Nixon-like "mistakes were made" media event.

During the gap between the ferocious fast-break dunk that capped No. 6 Kansas' 108-96 overtime win at Iowa State and the time he entered the media room at Hilton Coliseum, wise public relations officials and coaches probably advised Johnson to right his wrong.

So that's what the senior did. Instead of commencing the Q&A with a discussion about his career-high 39-point effort, he said sorry.

"First, before I answer any questions or talk about the game, I want to apologize to the head coach at Iowa State for that last play of the game," he said. "I shouldn't have dunked that ball. Right now, I'm feeling that. I should have dribbled that ball out. I just got caught in the moment. I saw an open basket, and I attacked it. Kind of got tunnel vision. I guess it was rubbing off that whole end of the game.

"But I want to apologize to him."

That play in the final seconds of the Jayhawks' second come-from-behind overtime win against the Cyclones this season hurt feelings. It offended people.

Iowa State fans who attended the game were emotionally bruised by the unnecessary slam. They booed and threw cups.

Those who saw the play on TV demanded atonement through the Twitter-sphere.

That's fair. But it's not right to end the conversation about emotions and feelings there.

What about the feelings of a young man who had been told by his own coach that he wasn't good enough to run his program a few weeks ago?

What about the veteran who had to read tweets about his apparent inadequacy? What about the guy who heard the whispers -- and screams -- from fans who wanted a new point guard?

That guy did not cry. He did not whine. He did not blame. He did not quit, even when Bill Self told reporters, "We don't have a point guard," following a loss to Oklahoma State earlier this month.

Johnson expressed his emotions through that dunk and the mosh pit that ensued on the KU sideline. He'd been redeemed in a game that allowed Kansas to maintain its first-place tie in the Big 12 with Kansas State.

This season, Johnson has faced as much doubt and scrutiny as any player in the country. His naysayers suggest Kansas can make a serious run in March as long as Johnson doesn't screw things up (3.0 turnovers per game).

A point guard, like any player, can handle that criticism. It's expected.

He needs to know, however, that he's trusted. And trust is what Johnson seemed to lack within the Kansas program as the Jayhawks suffered three consecutive losses earlier this month. Then, Monday happened.

"Me and Coach had a conversation, a personal conversation, a locker-room kind of conversation, it just happened to happen during the game," Johnson said. "I feel like that kind of sent some fire through my body. My teammates saw me responding. It felt good for [Travis Releford and Jeff Withey] to walk up to me and tell me no matter what they're riding with me, they're playing with me whether I'm playing as bad as I can or I'm playing like I played tonight. To hear that right after having that kind of conversation with Coach, it just did something to me, and I didn't look back."

We trust you. Now lead.

That's all Johnson needed to know.

With his team aching for buckets and losing its poise within the tremors produced at Hilton Coliseum, Johnson's swagger returned.

My teammates saw me responding. It felt good for [Travis Releford and Jeff Withey] to walk up to me and tell me no matter what they're riding with me, they're playing with me whether I'm playing as bad as I can or I'm playing like I played tonight.

-- KU's Elijah Johnson

With his team down 79-72 against a Cyclones squad that hit a multitude of ridiculous shots from beyond the arc -- Fred Hoiberg's program made a school-record 17 3-pointers against the Jayhawks -- Johnson roared down the floor for a layup with 4 minutes, 28 seconds to play in regulation. Another three-point play with 2:59 to go cut Iowa State's lead to two (82-80). A Georges Niang 3-pointer with 45 seconds on the game clock, however, seemed to seal the win for Iowa State.


That 87-82 lead was reduced to 87-85 when Johnson hit another 3-pointer with 29 seconds to go.

The last six seconds of the regulation matchup were certainly controversial.

Johnson rushed into the lane, made obvious contact with Niang and missed the layup. Officials did not call a block or charge on the play. ESPN.com's Andy Katz reports the Big 12 is reviewing the play.

In a scramble for the loose ball, Niang was called for a foul after Johnson retrieved the rebound in the middle of the scrum. Johnson hit the first free throw. And then, Hoiberg called a timeout.

"I didn't think nothing of it," Johnson said about Hoiberg's attempt to ice him.

He hit the next shot to tie the game (90-all) and force overtime.

Just like the first time the two teams met in 2012-13, Iowa State unraveled in the extra period. The 3-balls refused to find the rim -- and Johnson stayed hot. He scored 12 points in overtime, including a 3-pointer that extended Kansas' lead to seven points with 54 seconds to play. That shot officially corralled the Cyclones. Iowa State recorded just six points after regulation and was 1-of-9 from the field.

"I didn't think he'd get 39 every game, but this is how we envisioned him playing the whole year as far as attack mode, and hopefully, if we can have this aggressiveness-type performance moving forward, we'll be a much better team," said Self, who earned his 500th career victory.

The game changed when Self questioned Johnson in the first half. But Johnson voiced his opinion, too.

"I wasn't very happy with him. I thought he made a couple of bonehead plays early, and I know I went to him and got onto him," Self said. "He said, 'Coach, next play. That's what you always say, next play. Forget it.' And I said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'll forget it when I finish talking about the last play, OK?' So that was our way of me getting him to be stubborn and me getting him to be competitive. That's what I want from our guys."

After that chat, Johnson channeled Jack Taylor and hit shots that didn't make sense. Off-balance 3s. Layups. Floaters. Clutch shots. Last-second free throws.

"I blacked out. That's the best way to speak about it. I just blacked out," Johnson said about his performance.

That dunk in the final seconds was the act of a young man who'd felt good for the first time in weeks. He did not care about feelings. He cared about winning, and proving to himself, his team and his coach that he can lead this program.

"Should Phil Forte have laid it up when Oklahoma State beat us at the end? I mean that happens sometimes, but it was wrong," Self said about Johnson's late dunk.

"But a kid was emotional and he had an unbelievable night. Elijah apologized, and I said something to [Hoiberg] in the media, and it wasn't right. But it should not take away from him being an unbelievably classy kid, and that was a classy game, no ifs, ands or buts. Nobody can say that last play took anything away from this game."

Kansas committed 17 turnovers. Young star Ben McLemore scored just seven points (2-for-6). The Cyclones hit 17 3-pointers (41.5 percent).

But Johnson (6-for-10 from the 3-point line), who scored a season high for a Big 12 player, led the Jayhawks through every disadvantage.

As he left the postgame news conference, he met family and friends near the visiting team's locker room.

He embraced a woman, while a man grabbed his shoulder and repeated, "Elijah, Elijah, Elijah." It was a genuine moment. He rested his head on the woman's shoulder for a time. Johnson seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he enjoyed that time with loved ones. It was the same emotion Johnson felt on that dunk in the final seconds of regulation.