In the opening minutes, it seemed like any other Kansas matchup with a .500 team. KU scored 12 points in the first 5:11 of the game and held host West Virginia to two points and no field goals until the 12:38 mark in the first half.
With six minutes left in the first half, a Travis Releford layup made the score 29-14. Cruising, as expected. The crowd was quieted, WVU was starting to fall behind.
After that, however, it got scary.
Kansas committed four straight turnovers, then followed that up with a missed shot and let the Mountaineers back into the game. By denying passing lanes and playing active defense, West Virginia forced 12 Kansas turnovers, including a late steal of an Elijah Johnson pass that led to a Jabarie Hinds layup as the first half ended to keep the score within single digits.
Bill Self usually gets his team back in gear in the second half of games, but the offense stalled, going through multiple scoreless possessions which let WVU creep back in. Kansas only took 15 shots from the field while adding another seven turnovers. After a Juwan Staten layup at the 14 minute mark in the second half, Kansas turned the ball over and WVU had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead down just two. Kansas stole the ball back but missed a jumper, giving WVU another chance. It wasn’t until Ben McLemore hit a layup with 9:34 to go in the game that Kansas got a bit of breathing room back.
McLemore missed time in the first half with two fouls, then committed his third five minutes into the second half and only played 23 minutes. Thankfully for the Jayhawks, Jeff Withey was strong with 13 points in the first half and Releford scored 13 of his own in the second half as both led the team with 15 each. McLemore had eight in the second half, but never got a chance to take over. He only took seven shots but did hit six free throws, including one with 1:46 left in the game that ended a scoring drought of nearly five minutes. After that, Kansas had to survive one more late flurry, as a 6-2 run took the score from 58-50 in favor of Kansas to 60-56. Kevin Young hit a free throw to push the lead to five points and Withey blocked two shots in the last 15 seconds to keep the score at 61-56.
For most of the year, Kansas has hit its free throws, but on Monday night, they made only 18 of 34. The offensive struggles can be limited if the team hits free throws, but they hit only 8 of 15 in the second half. Withey missed four shots from the line to continue free throw shooting woes and Releford (86% on the year) only got the line once. Kansas is hitting 72% of their free throws this year, so Monday night looks like an anomaly, but late in games, teams should start trying to let Kevin Young or Withey get the ball to force them to the line.
Kansas is doing just enough to win in some of these games. On one hand, they’re getting some experience in winning the grinders and that might help them when the intensity cranks up at tournament time, but on the other hand, the more they let lesser teams hang around, the more likely one sneaks in and beats them.
The Jayhawks are now 19-1 after their 18th straight win and have won all seven of their conference games. They’ll take on Oklahoma State at home on Saturday at 3:00 p.m.