STILLWATER, Okla. — Quentin Grimes got his team as close to the finish line as he could Saturday.
From there, the Kansas basketball guard put it in the hands of the man upstairs.
“I was praying he didn’t make it,” Grimes said of a wide-open, potentially game-tying 3-point attempt from Oklahoma State’s Lindy Waters in the final seconds of the afternoon tilt at Gallagher-Iba Arena. “So I guess God answered me.”
Waters, who entered as the Big 12’s most accurate 3-point shooter with a 54.5-percent clip across 15 league games, missed the golden opportunity, and the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks held on for a 72-67 come-from-behind victory against the last-place Cowboys. The outcome put KU a half-game back of Texas Tech and Kansas State in the conference chase, with the first-place squads playing the first of their final three regular-season games later Saturday.
With the final score also came Grimes’ status as a single-game hero, a role the touted recruit hasn’t often held throughout what's been a struggle of a freshman campaign.
Grimes scored 17 points in the victory, including a game-tying 3 with 2:40 remaining and a go-ahead free-throw make moments later. While miscommunication between Grimes and fellow freshman Ochai Agbaji on a switch gave Waters his clean look on the Cowboys’ final offensive series, the penultimate possession saw Grimes play smothering defense on sharp-shooter Thomas Dziagwa, forcing a flat-footed 3-point attempt and shot clock violation with KU up one and 14.6 seconds left.
“I thought he played well late, but I thought he played well the entire game,” KU coach Bill Self said of Grimes. “I thought that was one of his better games. He shot the ball well, he was aggressive, he got downhill, had a couple of really nice passes that we didn’t convert for points. Yeah, I thought he did really well, and that was as big a shot as he’s made all year, obviously.”
Grimes, who entered averaging 7.6 points, enjoyed a second straight double-figure scoring game for the first time since he eclipsed 10 three consecutive times from Dec. 29 to Jan. 5. He had just one double-figure scoring game in the Jayhawks' 13 contests between.
The former five-star recruit and crown jewel of KU’s most recent recruiting class, Grimes expressed with certainty that he believes the rough patch is in the past.
“Yeah, definitely, for sure,” Grimes said. “Playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
KU (22-7, 11-5 Big 12) on Saturday needed every bit of Grimes’ effort — and then some.
OSU (10-19, 3-13) hit 7 of 12 attempts from 3-point range out of the gate, opening up an early seven-point lead on the Jayhawks. The visiting squad, meanwhile, hit just 3 of 12 deep tries in the opening half, exacerbating the problem with a 6-for-17 performance on layups en route to a 37-32 deficit at the intermission.
An 11-0 rally — the second double-figure run of the contest for the Jayhawks — put Self’s squad in front by four early in the second half, with Grimes in the stretch hitting one of his four treys. The Cowboys looked to be on the ropes with both Waters (ankle injury) and 6-foot-10 shot-blocking machine Yor Anei (foul trouble) out early in the period, but it didn't slow OSU — key 3s by Dziagwa and Jones, the latter the fourth in four attempts for a junior guard that entered a 29.8-percent shooter from deep, locked the game at 55
A Cameron McGriff jumper gave the Cowboys the lead and brought Waters and Anei back onto the court with 7:59 left. An Ochai Agbaji 3-pointer and a Devon Dotson driving layup knotted the score at 60-all and elicited a “Let’s go Jayhawks” chant from the split crowd, but it was again Jones — the former Indiana player finished with a team-high 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting — putting the Cowboys up with a ridiculous turnaround jumper at the 4:47 mark.
Dedric Lawson hit a pair of free throws, but McGriff put OSU back on top with a layup conversion on the other end, the Cowboys’ leading scorer converting the three-point play for a 67-64 lead with 4:02 left. It also represented the final points of the afternoon for OSU, which missed its last five field goal attempts and committed three turnovers the rest of the way.
Then, of course, came Grimes’ game-tying trey.
“I just let it fly,” said Grimes, who finished 6-for-11 from the floor and 4-for-7 from 3.
Grimes’ offensive burst put the Jayhawks in front, his defensive prowess on the Cowboys’ second-to-last possession kept them there, and when all else failed, the native of The Woodlands, Texas, held his breath under Waters’ pressure. The potential game-tying 3 with seven seconds left was offline, and Agbaji sealed the outcome at the other end with a pair of makes at the stripe, part of a 20-for-23 effort for KU from the free-throw line in the contest compared to a 2-for-5 showing there from OSU.
Lawson hit all nine of his free-throw attempts and finished with game-highs of 20 points and 15 rebounds, while Agbaji’s 11 rounded out the Jayhawks’ double-figure scorers. The shorthanded Cowboys got 19 points from McGriff and 15 from Dziagwa and finished the game 11-for-29 from 3 — just 4-for-17 after their red-hot start.
A player Self said “grew up” in a 12-point performance in Monday's 64-49 home victory over K-State, Grimes felt the same way about his teammates after Saturday’s outcome.
“I feel like we grew up today too,” Grimes said. “Knowing that we were down, it was a different type of atmosphere, crowd started to get alive (and) involved, we got down by five with like seven minutes left — we just kept grinding, kept grinding. ... I think we’re all just coming together as a team right now. We’re really gelling right now, for sure.”
The difference of late for Grimes, he said, has been focusing on what he can control — defense and hustle plays, for example — while maintaining confidence in his stroke.
“Everybody has a lot of faith in my on the offensive end. They know what I can do,” Grimes said. “So I feel like my teammates, my coaches have been real supportive of me.”
KU continues its Sooner State two-step with an 8 p.m. Tuesday contest against Oklahoma in Norman, the final road game of the season for a Jayhawk squad now 3-7 in true road contests.
If Grimes can maintain this level of play, or even take it a step further, the ceiling Self has so often this season acknowledged is lower than past years may need an adjustment or two.
“He played his butt off,” KU junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said of Grimes. “Kid has been putting in the work. That’s the Quentin we all know, and I think everybody needs to know that’s what he can do. We all believe in him like that.”