This game had it all — 3-pointers, monster dunks and even some trash talking. Unfortunately for K-State (15-3, 4-1 Big 12 Conference), the Jayhawks (17-1, 5-0 Big 12) made just enough plays down the stretch, holding on for a hard-fought 59-55 victory against the Wildcats on Tuesday night in Bramlage Coliseum.
The Jayhawks got off to a quick start, taking a 16-8 lead. However, with 9:22 left in the first half, KU’s star freshman guard Ben McLemore picked up his second foul, and the Wildcats were able to make their run.
Capped by a Shane Southwell 3-pointer, K-State took a 19-18 lead, sending the packed house into an absolute frenzy.
However, the Jayhawks responded with a run of their own to take a 27-21 lead. K-State head coach Bruce Weber said that KU’s poise played a huge part in the game and their ability to handle the Wildcats’ run.
"With Kansas, they just do not get rattled," Weber said. "Bill [Self] does a great job over there of continuing to do what they do, and they just play so consistent. Their defense also always gives them a chance to win a game. In a game where it is low-scoring, you have to make the plays late, and they did that. You have to give them credit."
Needing one of their go-to players to step up early in the second half, KU senior center Jeff Withey went to work down low. Withey scored 6 of the Jayhawks’ first 10 points, including a layup on a pass from fellow senior Travis Releford that gave Kansas a 41-33 lead.
As they had done early in the game, the Wildcats once again responded with a run of their own, cutting the lead to 3 points with 12:52 left. The teams traded baskets, and as KU held a 5-point lead with 7:40 left, the Wildcats appeared to be picking up momentum. However, a game-changing play occurred when KU senior forward Kevin Young grabbed a loose ball and gave it to McLemore, who ended up knocking down a 3-pointer to push the lead up to 8.
Kansas head coach Bill Self talked after the game about how big of a play that was for his team.
"We really did not have anything going on that possession," Self said. "However, we kept after it and were able to get the ball to Ben [McLemore] in the corner for a 3-pointer. It was one of those plays where things aren’t going your way, but you are still able to get something out of it, so it was definitely huge."
The Jayhawks were able to hold the Wildcats at arm’s length for the rest of the game, and two free throws from sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe iced the game for the Wildcats. Tharpe and freshman forward Perry Ellis were key to K-State’s defeat, according to Weber.
"Going into the game tonight, I said the two things that would be key is hustle plays and other guys stepping up," Weber said. "When Withey and McLemore went to the bench in foul trouble, Perry and Tharpe came in and made the plays that we were just unable to make."
Southwell led the Wildcats with 19 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Rodney McGruder, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds, and sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez joined Southwell in double-digits.
Self spoke very highly of Southwell, saying he deserved to be recognized for the improvements he has made throughout his career.
"I think he would get my vote for most improved player in the league," Self said. "If you remember last year, we played a triangle-and-two, and the guy that we did not guard was Shane because he did not even look at the basket. Rodney McGruder is terrific and Angel Rodriguez had an unbelievable first half, but Southwell was probably their best offensive threat tonight."
For the Jayhawks, Releford led the team with 12 points, while Withey and McLemore each scored 11. While getting a win at Bramlage is no easy task and this was a big game for the conference race, Withey said he understands that there is a long way to go.
"Whenever you can get a win on the road, it is good," Withey said. "It’s still early. They are still going to win games. They are going to come into the Fieldhouse, so they have a chance to win at our place. It matters to the people, but as for the league, it is so early that it does not matter that much."
The Wildcats are now in a three-way tie for second place in the Big 12 with Baylor and Oklahoma and hold only a half-game lead over Saturday’s opponent, Iowa State. Iowa State plays Texas Tech tonight in Lubbock, and a victory by the Cyclones would put them ahead of the Wildcats.
Opening tipoff is scheduled for 12:45 p.m. on Saturday in Ames, Iowa, at Hilton Coliseum.