After he'd missed time and time again all night long, for some reason Naadir Tharpe's final attempt just felt right when it left his hand.
And what a shot it was for No. 9 Kansas.
Tharpe connected on a short jumper in the lane with 16.5 seconds left in the second overtime, lifting the Jayhawks over No. 14 Oklahoma State 68-67 on Wednesday night for a critical win in the Big 12 championship race.
Tharpe had made only one of his first 11 shots, and Kansas (22-4, 10-3 Big 12) hadn't made a field goal in either overtime, before one finally fell through at just the right time.
"I knew I just had to make a play," said Tharpe, who was filling in at the point after starter Elijah Johnson fouled out.
Travis Releford scored 18 points and Jeff Withey had three double-overtime free throws among his 17 points for the Jayhawks, who are tied with No. 13 Kansas State for the conference lead with five games to go. Kansas has had at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title for each of the past eight years, but that streak was in jeopardy against the surging Cowboys.
Markel Brown scored 20 points to lead Oklahoma State (19-6, 9-4), which had won seven straight — including snapping the Jayhawks' 33-game home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this month — to move into a three-way tie for the league lead.
"Our whole focus is just to win the Big 12," Releford said. "Teams beat us. We knew we weren't going to run the table and go undefeated.
"Unfortunately, it just happened they beat us at home. We just were focused to come in and try to get a win."
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State's star freshman, had 16 points but fouled out midway through the second extra period when he slammed into Releford after going airborne on a drive to the basket.
On the winning play, Tharpe isolated against Phil Forte and wiggled his way into the lane before popping in a jumper from the right side. Brown missed a jumper from the left wing with about 7 seconds left, and Releford dove along the sideline in front of Oklahoma State's bench to prevent the rebound from going out of bounds and instead let the final seconds tick off the clock.
"It's a hard pill to swallow," Brown said. "I felt like this game could have went either way. A double-overtime game, it was a tough one out there."
Neither team led by more than six during the classic with championship implications, and both had their chances to win it at the end of regulation and each overtime.
The Jayhawks' best-in-the-nation defense limited Oklahoma State to a season-low 32.8 percent shooting. Kansas missed its first seven shots after regulation, only escaping after Tharpe's play in crunch time.
"Neither team had any offense and he certainly made a huge play there late. Just huge," coach Bill Self said. "Biggest play of his life, I'm sure,"
With so many misses, naturally, each team's star freshman had his share.
Ben McLemore, on pace to replace Danny Manning as the highest-scoring freshman in Kansas history, misfired on his first eight shots before making three in a row in the second half. He had a season-low seven points.
Smart started out 0 for 9 before finally hitting a fallaway jumper along the right side of the lane to cut Oklahoma State's deficit to 53-51 with 3:20 left in regulation. Forte tied it soon after, making a pair of free throws after coming up with a steal.
Smart came out of the game once after hurting his right shoulder and again after tweaking his right ankle in the first half. He then got socked in the face by Withey early in the second half. But it wasn't until he got his fifth foul that he finally couldn't return.
"Marcus is a big key to this team, so once he fouled out, I was like, 'Oh, shoot! We need Marcus out there,'" Brown said. "He brings the toughness out there. He gets stops out there. No matter if he's shooting bad for the night, he still can make that big-time play for you."
The Jayhawks weren't able to close it out in regulation after Releford banked in a tricky scoop shot underneath for a 57-53 lead with 1:49 to play. Smart made one of two free throws at the opposite end and, after Withey missed inside for Kansas, he got out in transition for a 3-pointer to tie it with 1:11 to play.
Johnson crossed over Smart on a drive, getting him to fall down in the lane, but Michael Cobbins came over to the rescue and swatted Johnson's shot into the hands of Self on the Jayhawks' bench. Brian Williams knocked the ball away from Tharpe to give OSU a chance at the win, but Smart missed a wild, off-balance jumper from the right wing and time ran out with the game tied at 57.
Forte drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner with 56.4 seconds left to tie it at 63 in the first overtime. The game went to a second overtime after McLemore air-balled a 3-pointer, Smart came up empty on a drive and Releford missed a driving attempt for Kansas. Smart's desperation shot from three-quarters court grazed the front of the rim.
"It was crazy," Releford said. "We knew it was going to be a tough match. With the crowd on their side and them being at home, we just knew we had to come out and just tough it out, and we did."