With 45 seconds left in Kansas’s 83-62 win over Kansas State, Jayhawk guard Ben McLemore had the ball at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down. He started to drive, backed up his defender and hit his sixth three-pointer of the night to reach the 30 point mark and put an exclamation point on a win that snapped a three game losing streak.
Not a bad way to celebrate his 20th birthday.
What makes it even better for Kansas is that the win came against the 10th ranked Kansas State Wildcats who had won four in a row and stood atop the Big 12 conference. It was the first time they were ranked above Kansas (14th) in Allen Fieldhouse since 1988. Kansas won then. Kansas won tonight.
The troubles that plagued Kansas over the last three games seemed to fade away as they jumped out to a quick lead, going from a tied 7-7 score to a 23-10 lead. Will Spradling broke the run with a three pointer, but Kansas played with much more confidence, a lot faster and took advantage of missed shots and turnovers by the Wildcats. Naadir Tharpe stood out in the first half as Kansas built their lead. Elijah Johnson’s struggles handling and shooting the ball have been notable, but Tharpe stepped in and was able to drive and distribute and the offense looked much more crisp, especially when the team got out into transition. He finished the first half with seven points and six assists as the Jayhawks took a 47-29 lead into the locker room. McLemore had 17 points on 5 of 6 shooting at that point and Kevin Young had played an energetic half that included a hi-low lob to Jeff Withey and a dunk at the end of the half.
Kansas didn’t start out as well in the second half. Kansas State started to claw back in, causing some turnovers and taking advantage of open shots. Rodney McGruder scored 17 points in the second half and was on the move all night. Kansas State was held in check by the Kansas defense for most of the night but they did get 20 field goals on 16 assists and tried to play physical with Kansas (which they’d had troubles with over the last three losses). But the refs were calling the game tight in the first half and both teams got into some foul trouble, notably with Travis Releford and Jordan Henriquez shuffling in and out from their respective benches with two fouls each.
The Jayhawks were just too smooth tonight. Overall, they shot 48.3% from the field and 38.1% from three-point range. Much of that was McLemore, who, at one point, hit the back iron of the rim on a three-point shot, but it stayed right above the cylinder and dropped through. Kansas was moving with more confidence and stayed aggressive. including a sequence where McLemore got a steal and, after two misses and two offensive rebounds, Jamari Traylor set Withey up with a bounce pass on the interior. Withey dunked it hard and got fouled, hitting the free throw to get the home crowd back into the game (Kansas had gone three minutes without a score at that point). Withey stole a ball right after that and the ball worked its way to McLemore who missed a three-pointer, but Releford got the offensive rebound and putback.
After that, it was just a matter of running out the clock.
McLemore finished with 30 points on 9-13 shooting (6-10 from three-point range) and all six free throws. He added seven rebounds and three steals. Withey scored 17, including 7 of 8 from the line and 10 rebounds and five blocks (which give him the all-time Kansas record for blocked shots as he’d entered the game tied with Greg Ostertag). Kevin Young had 13 with nine rebounds. Tharpe finished with eight assists.
For Kansas State, their shots fell from outside but they had little presence inside. McGruder led the team with 20, Angel Rodriguez had 17 and Spradling finished with 10 points.
Perry Ellis played only six minutes in this game after drawing a start against TCU. He’s really looked lost and Traylor played with much more energy than Ellis has shown all year. Johnson hit a runner early but still didn’t get going with the ball. He took better care of it as Kansas built the lead but twice passed up shots, and while he was smiling and the first guy off the bench at the half to congratulate Tharpe on his play, he’s still shaken.
Kansas State will return to Manhattan to face Baylor on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. CST. Kansas will host Texas Saturday night while ESPN in Lawrence for College Gameday. The game tips at 8:00 p.m. CST.