LAWRENCE — The ball always seems to come off his fingertips with textbook rotation. It always seems to be on line, even though it sometimes goes a bit too far or comes up a bit too short.
Even when that happens, Elijah Johnson keeps shooting.
Good thing, too. Kansas has needed him to survive in the NCAA tournament.
On a team dominated by player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and high-profile guard Tyshawn Taylor, it was Johnson — the all-too-often forgotten shooting guard — who made the plays down the stretch Sunday. It was his go-ahead 3-pointer, and his steal and breakaway lay-in that allowed the No. 2 seed to get past Purdue in a game the Jayhawks trailed nearly the entire way.
Kansas will play No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Friday night in St. Louis.
“He was huge,” said Taylor, who also converted an alley-oop dunk off a feed from Johnson with 2.5 seconds left to help seal the outcome. “Elijah was involved in every play in the last couple of minutes. He’s been playing good, and I’m sure he’s going to keep it up.”
That would be a welcome return on Kansas head coach Bill Self’s investment.
Johnson has been a mystery for much of the season. He played 36 games as a sophomore last season, even starting six, and many expected a breakout year from him as a starter.
Instead, his 3-point percentage plummeted from 40 percent to just over 33 percent, and he went through wild bouts of inconsistency. He scored 23 points against UCLA and then got shut out in 27 minutes against Florida International just a couple games later. He went 16 games without scoring more than a dozen points.
All the while, Self has stood staunchly in his corner. The ever-optimistic coach kept reminding people that Johnson has one of the best jump shots he’s ever seen, and it was just a matter of the ball finally going in. Self said it was inevitable, and he just hoped that it would happen when the Jayhawks needed it the most.
“He’s played better than his numbers, he just hasn’t shot the ball consistently,” Self said. “He was under 30 percent for the season from 3s, just until two or three weeks ago.”
That’s when things clicked, just as Self had hoped.
Johnson hit five 3-pointers and piled up a career-high 26 points against Texas A&M in the opening game of the Big 12 tournament. The junior guard from Las Vegas followed up with 15 points in a losing effort against Baylor in the tournament semifinals.
He had 15 more against Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and wound up with 18 points — none bigger than those four down the stretch — against the Boilermakers.
“Now he has rhythm. His confidence seems higher,” Self said. “I don’t know if there is anything specifically other than the fact that maybe he’s realized he’s talented. He’s a good guard. I would say he was our best player in Omaha when you think of both games.”
It’s a bit of vindication for Johnson, too.
He knows that when Robinson and Taylor depart, it will be his turn to the lead the team. And he understands it’s better to assume a leadership role now than be forced into it later.
“I always keep saying, ‘Without Tyshawn, we wouldn’t be this far.’ That’s obvious,” Robinson said in a crowded locker room in Omaha, minutes after Johnson’s heroics. “But without Elijah, this tournament wouldn’t be going the way it’s going right now. He’s been playing amazing.”
Johnson’s phenomenal finish against Purdue began with about 11 minutes left, when two foul shots got Kansas within 47-43. He added back-to-back jumpers to keep his team within three, and then provided the assist when Travis Releford got Kansas within 52-51 with 5½ minutes left.
But it was Johnson’s 3-pointer with just over 3 minutes to go that proved to be the turning point of the game. He spotted up from about 5 feet from beyond the arc and unloaded in one fluid motion, snapping the nylon and giving the Jayhawks their first lead.
“I was confident in the shot and I took it. I didn’t want to second-guess it,” he said. “I second-guessed a couple in the first half and I came up with air balls.”
“He took that shot with a smile on his face, too,” Taylor said. “He smiled when he shot it.”
After he made it, too.
Purdue actually pulled back ahead on a pair of baskets by Terone Johnson, but Johnson pulled down a rebound and fed it to Taylor for a dunk. Then he came up with a steal and took it in for himself, giving Kansas a 61-60 lead in the closing seconds.
The Jayhawks held on from there.
‘’One thing that stuck in my head the whole time, Coach preached to us it’s going to come down to one possession,” Johnson said. “As a team, we thought about that. Maybe individually, but we thought about it. We knuckled down and put our past experiences into effect.”
Kansas vs. North Carlina State
Record 29-6 24-12
Avg. Pts. 74.4 73.3
Opp. Avg. Pts. 61.5 67.8
Margin 12.9 5.5
FG Pct. .480 .463
Opp. FG Pct. .381 .417
3-Pt. FG Pct. .352 .358
Opp. 3-Pt. FG Pct. .345 .338
3-Pt. FG-Game 6.0 5.3
Opp. 3-Pt. FG-Game 6.1 6.5
FT Pct. .692 .703
Rebound Margin 5.7 4.5
TO Diff. 0.8 -0.2
Avg Steals 7.3 6.7
Avg Blocks 5.6 4.0