Bill Self, Elijah Johnson

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

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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.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.