By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Top-seeded Kansas got what it wanted, a ninth trip to the title game of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship. The Jayhawks and their fans also had another wish granted - KU gets a chance to avenge one of its two losses as Texas also reached the championship game.
What Kansas (31-2) didn't want or expect were two games quite so difficult. After surviving with a one-point victory over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals, the Jayhawks had to overcome an early 12-point deficit to knock off fifth-seeded Colorado, 90-83 in Friday's first semifinal at the Sprint Center.
"They got us down 22-10 before we woke up," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We actually played some of our best ball from about the 10-minute mark to the 10-minute mark of the second half. We kind of faltered down the stretch, but we'll take it."
Self called his second timeout with 13:08 left in the first half after Alec Burks' jumper gave the Buffs their 12-point lead. The Jayhawks were 3-of-8 from the field with four turnovers at that point. For the next 20 minutes, the Morris twins fueled a KU blitz.
Marcus (seven) and Markieff (10) scored 17 consecutive points for the Jayhawks. Markieff's 3-pointer gave Kansas its first lead at 27-26. The Buffs made just six of their last 20 shots going into halftime while Kansas made 12 of its last 18.
When Elijah Johnson's 3-pointer gave Kansas a 62-44 lead with 14:15 left in the second half, the Jayhawks completed a remarkable stretch of efficiency. They scored 52 points on 32 possessions, making 17 of 26 shots.
"We came out flat the past two games and we've got to do a better job of coming out hard and prepared and ready to go," said Kansas senior guard Tyrel Reed, who helped hold Colorado senior Cory Higgins to 1-of-11 shooting. "We just kind of hunkered down and defended. And by getting stops, that gives us confidence on the offensive end as well."
The Buffaloes (21-13) were playing in their first Big 12 Championship semifinal and they played like a team unsatisfied with that milestone. Colorado made eight of its first 10 shots and dominated Kansas, a team it had lost to twice during the regular season.
Despite trailing by 18 and with most of the 18,910 in the Sprint Center making noise for the Jayhawks, the Buffs had one final surge. A 1-3-1 zone stymied Kansas' attack and with 6:03 remaining Colorado trailed 76-67. Two 3-pointers by Reed - the second coming with 2:17 remaining - countered a 3-pointer from Levi Knutson and blunted the Buffs' rally.
"I know these guys in the locker room are disappointed and will never be happy with this result," first-year Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "But as a coach, you've got to look at the effort your guys put out on the floor, and we gave it a great effort tonight.
"We just didn't have enough juice and gas in our tank to get over the hump."
Kansas, which shoots just 67 percent from the line, made 29-of-33 free throws and had a 39-25 rebounding edge. The Morris brothers each scored 20 points with Marcus grabbing 13 rebounds.
The Jayhawks are a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Colorado's two victories in three games likely put the Buffs in the field as an at-large team.
"We've made great strides as a team," said Knutson, a senior guard who had 17 points off the bench. "Obviously we're never satisfied after a loss. But I think we took some big steps this week and I think we're playing the best basketball we've played since I've been here.
"So that's something that we can take into whatever postseason tournament we're in. It's something I'm proud of, definitely proud of the guys on this team, and hopefully we can keep playing good basketball."