NEW ORLEANS — Travis Releford stepped into the spotlight when the Kansas stars faded, his performance as much as any other the reason the Jayhawks are playing for a national championship.
The junior guard from Kansas City, Mo., had 15 points and six rebounds Saturday night, helping out on both ends of the floor to boost the Jayhawks to a 64-62 victory over Ohio State.
Kansas will play Kentucky on Monday night for its sixth national championship, after the Wildcats beat Louisville 69-61 earlier Saturday night.
“We still have goals,” Releford said afterward, looking as though he just stepped out of practice rather than off college basketball’s biggest stage. “We can’t be too excited about this win.”
The win wouldn’t have been possible without Releford, who helped shut down Ohio State’s perimeter offense down the stretch and made good on four straight foul shots. The first two with less than 3 minutes left made it 56-55, and the second pair made it 62-59 with 1:13 remaining.
“I just went to the line, relaxed, took a deep breath, just did what I’ve been doing all year,” he said. “I felt very confident before I even let the ball go.”
So often playing in the shadows of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, the two larger-than-life stars of the program, Releford’s contributions are often overlooked. But he seemed to be in the middle of everything Saturday night when the Jayhawks needed him most.
That included the victory celebration.
When the Buckeyes’ Aaron Craft was called for a lane violation after missing the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds left, and the final seconds ticked off the clock on the inbound pass, it was Releford who skipped to midcourt to lead his team in celebration.
Releford popped the front of his white jersey, showing off the name “Kansas” for the crowd in the Superdome, and then joined the rest of his teammates as they rushed the court.
The fact he had any energy left to celebrate was surprising.
Releford expended more than his share in helping the Jayhawks rally from a 13-point deficit. He helped lock down Craft, the Buckeyes’ gritty point guard, and was just as good when he switched over to longer, lankier Deshaun Thomas.
“They played hard,” Ohio State star Jared Sullinger conceded.
Releford came in averaging just over eight points, but he showed off some offense, too.
The biggest play of the night may be the one most quickly forgotten. Jeff Withey had blocked Craft with four seconds left in the first half, and Robinson kicked the rebound ahead to Taylor, who got it to Releford on the fast-break for a buzzer-beating dunk.
Kansas still trailed 34-25 at halftime, but it had the momentum.
“After Jeff got the block, I looked up at the clock and saw there was three seconds left,” Releford said, “and I saw that I was one-on-one, put my head down and just got the shot off.”
Releford made another big basket during a 12-2 run spanning the break, and his jumper with just under 8 minutes left allowed the Jayhawks to claw within 49-48. Ohio State coach Thad Matta whirled around to call a timeout, but it didn’t do much to slow the momentum.
Kansas simply kept coming, its confidence growing as the game tightened up.
“We were playing in quick-sand, it looked like. And then the light came on,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We were able to play through our bigs, we were able to get out and run, but the biggest thing is we got stops.”
The normally reserved, soft-spoken Releford even started to jaw with the Buckeyes when his free throws gave Kansas the lead in the closing minutes. He had the last word, too, when the final seconds ticked off the clock and the Jayhawks marched on to the national title game.
“It feels great, but we’ve been in those situations before this season where we’ve played from behind,” he said. “We had to grind it out.”
The Jayhawks did. Releford was perhaps the biggest reason why.