LAWRENCE — Everything seemed set up for Kansas to snap its three-game losing streak on Monday.
The No. 14-ranked Jayhawks were playing their rival Kansas State in a place they often beat them, at home, on a day they seem to play extremely well on, and, oh yeah, it was freshman guard Ben McLemore’s birthday.
Kansas used a big run early in the game to control the pace and thwarted any comeback attempt from the No. 10 Wildcats in the second half to win 83-62 at Allen Fieldhouse.
Kansas (20-4, 8-3 Big 12) coach Bill Self said he thought his team manned up to the situation.
“We’ve been so bad for about a week, but the guys showed up — they fought,” he said. “I was so proud of them.”
The Wildcats (19-5, 8-3) hung with KU early in the game, but the Jayhawks used foul trouble from K-State’s big men to set up a big scoring run. Thomas Gipson picked up two quick fouls, and then Jordan Henriquez was called for a flagrant foul on what replays showed to be a play on the ball.
After K-State pulled within four points with 11:44 left in the first half, the Jayhawks opened up a 14-3 run, and left the Wildcats in their taillights.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said it was tough to play without his top two forwards for much of the first half, but it’s something they can’t blame the loss on.
“Can’t have excuses, that’s part of basketball,” he said. “(McLemore) was in trouble at our place and we didn’t take advantage of it. They went and took advantage of the opportunity.”
The Wildcats would cut the score down to a 15-point deficit in the second half with an 8-2 run, but the Jayhawks were there to answer. In classic fashion, Kansas responded to the K-State run with a pair of runs itself, and pushed the lead out to 75-50 with 8:38 to play — the largest lead of the game.
Overall, the contest seemed to be about Kansas overcoming the adversity of its past three games, and reminding the Big 12 that it’s still a player in the league race.
“I don’t know what went wrong, but I do know if we weren’t tough enough to grind it out and get through that stretch, we probably needed to have a knot put in our head, and we certainly did,” Self said. “It’s going to be more difficult to win the league than it ever has been with where we still have to go and the games that we have remaining, but we’re in the game.”
Self said the difference in the game was in rebounding, where the Jayhawks won by a sizable margin, 41-23. Kansas outrebounded K-State 23-12 in the second half alone.
Weber said he was most disappointed with the way his team played defense. The Wildcats, normally a good defensive team, allowed a season-high 83 points, with 30 coming from the birthday-boy McLemore.
“Our toughness and our discipline were not there,” he said. “I thought we would have competed a little better. It should have been more of a game.”
The Wildcats got a 20-point effort from Rodney McGruder, while Angel Rodriguez added another 17.
But K-State didn’t have an answer for McLemore, nor could they stop Kansas big man Jeff Withey, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks — setting the KU record for career blocked shots in the process.
Weber thought the Jayhawks grasped the energy of the building early, and rode it to the end.
“They had a very, very tough week,” he said. “They probably hung their head for a little while. They got their head up and it’s always a good remedy to come back home.”
Despite the loss, the Wildcats still sit tied for first place in the Big 12 and still control their destiny towards a Big 12 title with seven games left in the league schedule. In fact, that leaves both Kansas and K-State in the same spot going forward.
There is no tiebreaker for the season standings, so both teams winning out would result in both teams sharing the Big 12 title. Still, that scenario is a ways off, and the Wildcats have tough games on their plate, including two against Baylor, starting this Saturday in Manhattan.
Weber said the Wildcats have to make sure they don’t let Monday’s loss continue to linger longer than it should.
“We are still in first place and I told them if we win the rest of our games, we win the league,” he said. “We know it’s going to be tough, but that’s how we have to approach it and we can’t let one loss become two losses.”