The Wildcats went into Allen Fieldhouse on Monday with the opportunity to deliver a potential knockout blow to the Jayhawks’ eight straight Big 12 Conference championship titles. However, KU was not ready to relinquish their place on top, as freshman guard Ben McLemore put in 17 of his game-high 30 points in the first half and ignited the Jayhawks (20-4, 8-3 Big 12) to an 83-62 victory over K-State (19-5, 8-3). This forced a three-way tie with Oklahoma State atop the Big 12.
After the game, KU head coach Bill Self talked about how the Jayhawks’ aggression played a huge role in the victory.
“We have been so bad for about a week, but the guys showed up,” Self said. “They fought tonight. I was so proud of them. The stats are the same, except we got them on glass. We were so aggressive early on. I don’t know how many layups we missed, but it was from the guys trying too hard and going so hard to the glass. I don’t know if I have seen us play with that much intensity and awareness than we did the first 20 minutes.”
Both teams started slow on offense. The score was only 10-7 in favor of the Jayhawks at just under seven minutes into the game, then McLemore was fouled by senior center Jordan Henriquez as he went up for a dunk, resulting in an intentional foul.
This gave the Jayhawks a huge momentum boost. The foul jump-started a 25-9 run, capped off by a McLemore layup that gave the Jayhawks a 35-16 lead and forced K-State head coach Bruce Weber to call a timeout.
A Shane Southwell 3-pointer with 30 seconds left in the half cut the lead to 16, but KU senior forward Kevin Young, like he did in Manhattan, scored a layup at the first-half buzzer, and the Jayhawks went into intermission up 47-29.
Weber talked about the experience of playing a KU team that was hungry to end the losing streak.
“They had a tough week,” Weber said. “I think they had their heads down a little bit, but they were able to come back home. Being able to come back in front of your fans and use their energy, it obviously showed as they came out very hungry. The thing that I am disappointed with is that a lot of the things that we had done to get to this point, we just didn’t do tonight.”
Junior guard Will Spradling, who scored 10 points for the Wildcats, said it was the easy baskets that made things tough in the first half.
“In the game in Manhattan, we did not allow them to get many fast-break points,” Spradling said. “Tonight, we gave up dunks. Once they started getting those dunks, their crowd got into it. They do a great job of feeding off their crowd, and tonight we allowed them to do just that.”
KU extended their lead to 23 points early in the second half at 52-29. With 14:04 left in the game, sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez pulled the Wildcats to within 58-43, but K-State got no closer. McLemore once again caught fire, hitting a 3-pointer that extended the Jayhawks’ lead back up to 25.
After the game, McLemore, who happened to turn 20 on Monday night, talked about what the key was for the Jayhawks to get back on the winning track.
“We just got back to playing Kansas basketball,” McLemore said. “It all started on the defensive end, where we were able to get some stops, and that jump-started us on the offensive end. Last week was a tough week for us, but tonight was great. It was good to get back to playing basketball.”
KU center Jeff Withey also had a big game for the Jayhawks, finishing with 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and five blocks.
The Wildcats were led by senior guard Rodney McGruder in the scoring column, as the senior scored 20 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Despite the loss, McGruder talked about how it is only one game and that the team must learn from the experience and bounce back.
“We can’t dwell on this game,” McGruder said. “I can sit back and think about this game when my career is over, but right now we just gotta get ready and prepare for the next game on our schedule.”
The Wildcats will be back in action on Saturday when they play host to Pierre Jackson and the Baylor Bears at Bramlage Coliseum. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.