KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ochai Agbaji was a lightly regarded three-star prospect when he left his home in Kansas City, Missouri, four long years ago to play big-time college basketball just down the road at Kansas.
Agbaji returned home this weekend as the Big 12's player of the year, then showed out in front of hundreds of friends and family during the Big 12 Tournament, leading the sixth-ranked Jayhawks to a 74-65 win over Texas Tech on Saturday night to capture not only the title for his team but MVP honors for himself.
“I'm just blessed to be in this position, but I give it back to my teammates," said Agbaji, the fifth player in history to win the regular-season player of the year award and the tournament’s top honor. "I couldn't have done it without them.”
They couldn't have done it without him.
Agbaji scored 16 points, including a couple clinching foul shots with just over a minute left, to lift the Jayhawks (27-6) past the plucky Red Raiders (25-9) and likely secure a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament.
David McCormack added 18 points and 11 rebounds, Christian Braun had 14 points and Jalen Wilson and Remy Martin scored 12 apiece for the the Jayhawks (27-6), who showcased poise and resilience borne of a veteran group of players in the final minutes as the Red Raiders fumbled away their own chance at the title.
Texas Tech trailed 63-58 with about four minutes to go when Terrence Shannon Jr. was called for charging. Kevin Obanor turned it over on the Red Raiders' next possession, then stepped over the end line while trying to inbound the ball for another turnover, each of them allowing the Jayhawks to draw away down the stretch.
The heavily pro-Kansas crowd began its haunting “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” chant with 28.6 seconds left on the clock, and coach Bill Self's squad coasted to its 12th conference tournament title since the league's inception in 1996-97.
“I thought it was a great game,” Self said. “The first half we couldn’t stop them, they couldn’t stop us. The second half I don't think was artistic on either end, but we made a couple of really good toughness plays when we needed them.”
Shannon finished with 14 points, and Bryson Williams had 17 for the Red Raiders (25-9), who still have never won the Big 12 Tournament. They also lost to Oklahoma State in their only other championship appearance in 2005.
“They're a team that's extremely difficult to prepare for,” Texas Tech coach Mark Adams said, “and I wish we had two or three days to do that. They play at a great pace and they have a lot of players that do things extremely well.”
The teams, who finished a game apart in the Big 12, waged a pair of nip-and-tuck classics during the regular season with each winning at home. Their game at Allen Fieldhouse may have been the league's best all year, a back-and-forth showdown that went to double overtime before the Jayhawks escaped with the win.
Just how evenly matched were they Saturday night?
Neither team scored more than five straight points in the first half. Neither led by more than four. Neither scored more than two straight baskets without the other team providing some kind of answer at the other end.
Even when it looked as if Kansas was building some momentum, and Martin knocked down a long jumper to make it 37-33 in the final minute, Williams provided an answering 3-pointer to keep the Red Raiders within a point at the half.
It remained close throughout the second half.
When Kansas edged ahead by five, Shannon and the Red Raiders responded with seven straight points. When Texas Tech took a 54-51 lead with 11:20 to go, Wilson and Agbaji — the tournament's MVP — provided back-to-back buckets that began a 12-2 charge and gave the Jayhawks a 63-56 lead with less than five minutes to play.
Kansas maintained control the rest of the way as the Red Raiders began to crack under the pressure.
“These guys I’m coaching all have tears in their eyes," said Adams, the Big 12's coach of the year. “This hurts, but we’ll learn from this and hopefully it helps us get ready for the NCAA Tournament.”
Texas Tech was still within 64-60 with 3:06 to play, but Kansas scored the next six points as the Red Raiders continued to wilt under the pressure. It was a stunning departure from the norm for a team that starts a junior (Shannon) alongside five seniors and that has played in plenty of tight games this season.
Kansas overcame a poor performance from beyond the arc (3 for 22) by doing the little things: The Jayhawks took care of the ball, made the extra pass and got to the foul line. They were 25 of 32 on their free throws, including big ones from Agbaji — the league's player of the year — when the outcome was on the line.
It's time for Selection Sunday. The Jayhawks have an eye on one of the four No. 1 seeds while the Red Raiders could land as high as the No. 2 line after their spirited run to the Big 12 Tournament title game.
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