On a night that saw National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor combine to make just 6 of 23 shots, 2-seed Kansas needed someone to step up in order to keep their season alive.
Enter Elijah Johnson, who led the way with 18 points and made key plays down the stretch to push Kansas past 10-seed Purdue by the final score of 63-60.
Johnson’s 3-pointer with 3:04 remaining gave Kansas their first lead of the game at 57-56. His defense helped force a Lewis Jackson turnover on Purdue’s next possession, and Johnson’s layup with 24 seconds to go would give the Big 12 regular season champs the lead for good at 61-60.
It’s safe to say that without Johnson’s play the Jayhawks would be finished for the season, suffering their second loss in the Round of 32 in the last three years.
“He was huge tonight, and the last few weeks he’s been huge for us,” said Taylor of Johnson’s performance. “Elijah was involved in every play in the last couple of minutes. He’s been playing good and I’m sure he’s going to keep it up.”
The Las Vegas native doesn’t get the national publicity of Robinson or Taylor but that’s not to say that he isn’t important. In fact if the Jayhawks are to reach the Final Four, they’re going to need Robinson to play as he did on Sunday night.
Before Johnson’s current streak of four straight double-figure scoring efforts he’d reached double figures in just three of Kansas’ prior ten games.
Yet while Kansas lost just once in those ten games (at Missouri) it was clear that Bill Self’s team would need more from their supporting cast in order to have a successful NCAA tournament run.
Johnson has averaged 18.5 points and 3.0 rebounds per game over the last four for Kansas, with the scoring being an improvement of more than eight points on his season average (10.0).
“I would say he was our best player in Omaha when you think of both games,” remarked head coach Bill Self. “He played good in Kansas City when our team struggled. He’s a really good guard. I think that he’s going to continue to get better and better.”
If Johnson can continue to provide that kind of relief for Robinson and Taylor, Kansas making another Final Four appearance would be more than possible.