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For Elijah Johnson, Monday’s comeback was about more than just one win

Feb 26, 2013, 12:20 AM EDT

Bill Self, Elijah Johnson

Iowa State, playing in one of the toughest home-court environments in the country, hit 17 threes and scored 90 points in regulation against No. 6 Kansas and still managed to lose, 108-96 in overtime.

Why?

Elijah Johnson.

*(Before I get any further here, the referees were terrible down the stretch in this game. They gave Jeff Withey’s fifth foul, which was clearly on Withey, to Kevin Young. They also blew a charge call and then gifted Kansas a loose ball foul on the final possession that led to the game-tying free throws. Oh, and after the blown charge call, Withey kept the offensive rebound alive to create the opportunity for the loose ball foul. Just a terrible, terrible job down the stretch.)

The Jayhawk’s senior guard finished with 39 points, on 13-22 shooting, and seven assists. But what was more impressive than the numbers he finished with was how he finished the game.

After Iowa State’s Georges Niang hit a three to put the Cyclones up 87-82 with less than a minute left, Johnson answered with a three of his own with 32 seconds on the clock. After two free throws from Korie Lucious, he hit another three 17 seconds left. After Lucious went 1-2 from the line, Johnson forced overtime when he knocked down two free throws with 4.9 ticks left.

And he wasn’t done. He kicked off overtime with a layup and a jumper. After finding Travis Releford for a wide-open three on the next possession, Johnson came down and buried another three, giving Kansas a 100-92 lead. ISU would score four straight points to make things interesting again, but with just over a minute left in the extra period, Johnson drilled a fadeaway, 25-foot three as the shot clock horn sounded, all but ending any hope of Hilton Magic.

All told, Johnson scored eight points in the final 32 seconds of regulation and 10 points in the first four minutes of overtime. Throw in his assist to Releford, and the oft-maligned senior guard accounted for all 21 Jayhawk points in a 21-9, game-winning run.

What makes this performance all the more impressive is that, while playing better over the last three games for the Jayhawks, Johnson has really struggled this season. Bill Self has tried to convert him to the point full-time, and it’s been somewhat of a disaster. His confidence was completely shot during the Jayhawk’s three-game losing streak, and he not only looked like he was completely lost on the court, he simply didn’t look like a kid that was having any fun.

For a senior, that’s a shame.

But it was never a talent issue for Johnson. He’s got the ability to be an effective player for the Jayhawks, whether he’s handling the ball or playing alongside Naadir Tharpe. The Jayhawk’s situation at the point is not ideal, but it’s far from a worse-case scenario.

Johnson isn’t a true point guard, but he’s also not as bad as he has been this season.

And that’s why this game is so important.

Just because Johnson took over for a five-minute stretch in a tough road environment doesn’t change the fact that, at practice tomorrow, Self is still going to be without a true point guard running the show. But he will have his most talented option at the point brimming with confidence. With the way that Kansas can defend, they don’t need Trey Burke. They don’t need Phil Pressey. What they need is Johnson — and, for that matter, Tharpe — knocking down open threes, creating off the dribble when there is a lane, and avoiding those soul-crushing turnovers that result in layups at the other end of the floor.

A confident Johnson can be that guy.

And that’s what makes this game — and this performance from Johnson — so important.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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