LOUISVILLE, KY. — One of the biggest knocks on Kansas heading into the NCAA Tournament was that it didn’t have a true go-to guy.
Basketball’s royalty included Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and North Carolina’s Brice Johnson.
But when KU needed a basket — when the going got tough — would the Jayhawks have someone they could turn to?
On Thursday the answer was a definitive yes, as senior forward Perry Ellis followed three years of postseason frustrations with his most memorable night as a Jayhawk in KU’s 79-63 victory over fifth-seeded Maryland in the Sweet 16 at the KFC Yum Center.
“People can keep saying that if they want and underestimate him,” KU forward Jamari Traylor said, “because he’s just going to go out there and perform.”
Ellis finished with 27 points, and he was best when KU needed him most.
To start the second half, he carved up Maryland’s athletic front line with a barrage of midrange jumpers, spinning layups and shoulder-down moves that resulted in fouls.
“Over the years, I’d say I got a lot more aggressive,” Ellis said. “They have a lot of confidence in me — teammates, coaches. They just tell me to be aggressive, and that’s what I try to do.”
Ellis scored 13 points in the first 9 minutes after the break while making all five of his field-goal attempts.
During that stretch, KU moved from a two-point halftime lead to an 11-point advantage, all but stamping its place in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012.
KU, which won its 17th straight game, will face second-seeded Villanova at 7:49 p.m. Saturday on CBS with a berth to the Final Four on the line. The Jayhawks advanced to their 21st Elite Eight and sixth under coach Bill Self, with Self improving to 6-2 at KU in Sweet 16 games.
“It’s a great feeling,” KU guard Devonte’ Graham said. “The last two years, we didn’t make it out of the first weekend, so it’s big for us, big for the school. Fans are excited, and we’re just looking forward to the next game.”
KU also was helped by a tried-and-true formula, one forward Landen Lucas has repeated constantly in the locker room over the last few weeks.
Early defense for the Jayhawks is critical, Lucas says, keeping the team in games until it can find its footing on the other end. The hope is KU can at some point feel its way offensively, and a quick run can be enough to take control of a game.
Though the top-seeded Jayhawks pulled away in the second half, the first half was just as vital. During one stretch, they missed nine shots in a row, going more than five minutes without a point.
And at the end of it, KU trailed just 14-10, the Jayhawks locking down defensively to keep the boat from sinking altogether.
“The key to winning games is when you’re not playing great, it’s not allowing people to go on runs against you,” Self said. “We were able to do that.”
Self improved to 7-0 against former KU player and current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who fell in all of his previous matchups against Self while at Texas A&M during 2008-11.
“We lost to the best team in the country,” Turgeon said.
Afterwards, the Jayhawks admitted they were motivated by media slights. They had heard CBS’s Doug Gottlieb, who talked up Maryland’s talent on Selection Sunday.
“People counted all of us out this game,” KU guard Wayne Selden said. “They said they had the pros over there and we were just Joes.”
Graham also referenced quotes from former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who said on a local radio show that only two KU players would start for Maryland — Ellis and Selden — and only then because of their toughness.
“We’ve all seen that where a guy might not be as talented, but he starts because of the way he plays,” Williams said, according to 247sports.com.
“We just take it as motivation. We don’t get mad at about it or anything like that, because everybody has their opinion,” Graham said. “They can say Frank (Mason) (stinks), I (stink), it doesn’t really matter, because we believe in ourselves and in our team.”
Selden contributed 19 points on 7-for-16 shooting, with 10 of those coming in the second half. Lucas added 11 points and 14 rebounds in 29 minutes.
Maryland, 27-9, made just 8 of 23 second-half shots (35 percent).
KU, 33-4, played without guard Brannen Greene, who sat out with back spasms.
Ellis’ 27 points easily topped his NCAA Tournament high of 21 that he had against both Austin Peay and Connecticut this season. He made 10 of 17 shots and extended his senior season for at least one more game.
“He couldn’t hurt himself by coming back to school,” Self said. “And he has a chance to leave Kansas with a legacy that will allow him to be a hero there for a lifetime.”