Opinion: Elijah Johnson responds to ‘man-up’ talk
Ames, Iowa ? Elijah Johnson awakened with an achy stomach and knee. All those around him knew what to do with the verbal sympathy cards that might have brightened his spirits. Bill Cowgill, the Kansas University basketball team’s athletic trainer, burned them with his tongue at the start of the day. Bill Self, the school’s 10th-year coach, took the baton from Cowgill moments into Monday night’s game against Iowa State inside Hilton Coliseum and let Johnson have it again.
You think maybe Cowgill and Self know their personnel?
Johnson, the guy who couldn’t shoot straight or dribble great for so much of the season, responded to the “man-up” speeches by delivering a more clutch performance than any Kansas player since … good question. A long, long time.
Johnson scored 20 of his career-high 39 points in the final 5:29, rallying Kansas to a 108-96 overtime victory against an Iowa State squad of marksmen who made 17 three-pointers, 29 free throws and just eight two-point field goals.
Johnson alone outscored Iowa State 8-3 in the final 29 seconds of regulation and 12-6 in the overtime period, although he apologized afterward for the final two points, a dunk when the classy call was dribbling out the clock.
His parents gave him the biblical name Elijah. Lazarus would have fit him well, too, given that his game came all the way back from the dead and then some Monday. Johnson was quick to share the credit with more than just teammates.
Athletic trainers in all sports are valued greatly by athletes because they know all the tricks to get them healthy enough to play when aches and pains are begging them to rest. Athletes don’t like resting. They like competing. They tend to develop a deep trust for trainers, so much so that a trainer, to do the best job he can for the team, needs to show some tough love at times. Monday morning was one such time for Cowgill, according to Johnson and Self.
“I’ve been with Bill Cowgill a whole lot, and he’s been treating me, getting me right and making me feel better, giving me confidence and letting me know that, ‘You had an injury. You don’t have one now,’ and making me do things I’m not comfortable doing, trying to get me to step out of my comfort zone,” Johnson said. “And he’s been doing it ever since I had my (offseason) surgery. And I think right now it’s paying off because most people care to you and baby you through it, and right now he’s just telling me, ‘Man up. You don’t have too many games left.’ I’ve been with him every day.”
Self likened an athlete’s body to a race car, saying, “You just get off a little bit, and it can throw the whole engine off or how it runs. This morning his knee was bothering him, and he’s had some stomach issues. Finally, Cowgill got into him, ‘I don’t want to hear that crap. You’re not hurt. You’re not hurt. Quit making excuses. You’re not hurt.’ And I think was probably good for him to hear that.”
“It takes a little push to go a long ways sometimes,” Johnson said. “I feel that little push taking me real far right now.”
Self pushed him early in the game during a break in the action by lighting him up in a manner that usually takes place behind closed doors. Looking back on the moment after the game, Johnson said the coach did it on purpose and pushed just the right buttons.
KU’s comeback not only put the Jayhawks in good position to win a ninth consecutive Big 12 title, it ended Iowa State’s homecourt winning streak at 22 games, and it showed Kansas is capable of winning games played at any pace.
What Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is doing with his team isn’t a great deal different from what Big 12 football coaches have been doing for years to the delight of audiences across the Great Plains.
Hoiberg floods the basketball court with long-range shooters, who have quick triggers and no conscience. He makes the opposing defense cover so much more territory, and it makes for such an entertaining brand of basketball to watch.
Hoiberg’s Cyclones have inverted the game of basketball, turned into an outside-in Fan Fest. When the Cyclones play at home, they feed on their boisterous fans, led by an especially vibrant student section. The fans feed on the excitement of watching the long arc of shots raining in from every angle, every man.
It’s such a stark, welcome contrast to the way so many games are played in this season of historically low scores.
Cyclones sixth man Tyrus McGee, one of those undersized shooting guards off the bench who loves to let it fly anywhere, anytime, lit up Kansas for 22 points and made six of 10 three-pointers. On most nights, he would have been the game’s MVP. On this night, he finished a distant second to Johnson, who made six of 10 three-pointers, 13 of 22 field goals and seven of seven free throws and did some of his most meaningful work by scoring eight points in less time than it takes a shot clock to expire.