Kansas didn’t need both of its stars on the floor to do damage Tuesday night.
With Jeff Withey on the bench in foul trouble, the Jayhawks’ freshman Ben McLemore helped third-ranked KU avert a Kansas State comeback attempt to win 59-55 at Bramlage Coliseum.
The win put Kansas (17-1, 5-0) in sole possession of first place in the Big 12.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats (15-3, 4-1) made a run at KU’s lead in the second half, cutting it to just three points with Withey out of the game. With the Jayhawks in control by seven, K-State senior Rodney McGruder hit his third 3 of the game to make it 45-41 with 11:55 to play.
That’s when McLemore took over, leading a 7-2 run all on his own to push the Jayhawks in front 53-43 with 6:49 to play. McLemore opened the run with just his second bucket of the game before answering a basket from Shane Southwell with his only 3-pointer and another basket.
McLemore’s 3-pointer came off a disappointing play for the Wildcats, as KU’s Kevin Young pulled down an offensive rebound to extend a possession and get the ball to McLemore.
“Ben was no factor offensively and he got his basket off a broken play,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That was a big rebound by Kev. That’s what we did tonight. That game went just as I’m sure all predicted, not the most artistic, both teams are good defensively and it came down to making some plays at key moments, and that was one of the key plays we made.”
Senior guard Travis Releford said McLemore’s run was huge for the Jayhawks .
“I told him once he got in after foul trouble just to keep his head and keep shooting,” he said. “Second half, we were trying to play through Jeff and Ben because they take a lot of pressure off the team. He stepped up and made those shots.”
Southwell was the Wildcats’ lone saving grace in the final eight minutes of the game, scoring all but four of K-State’s points in that stretch, and hitting a pair of 3-pointers.
But after Southwell’s final 3 of the game to cut the KU lead to five points with 5:30 left, Withey made a hook shot to push the Jayhawks ahead by seven and the Wildcats never recovered.
Self said Withey’s shot was the key play of the game.
“He catches the ball and is able to score over really good defense from Jordan (Henriquez),” Self said. “There were several plays like that, that allowed us to keep our distance.”
K-State was outrebounded for the second straight game, 35-28, and made just nine of a season-high 30 attempts from behind the arc.
Wildcats’ coach Bruce Weber said his team was talking the shots that Kansas was giving it — they just weren’t falling.
“We relied obviously on the 3 ball — 30 of them,” he said. “But it’s something they give you and that’s why Iowa State had a chance to beat them at their place. You just got to hit the open ones and then you would make them defend you different. We didn’t do that.”
Southwell finished with a career high 19 points and made 5 of 11 shots from the perimeter, all while leading the team in rebounds with seven.
The highly anticipated matchup of McLemore vs. McGruder was anticlimactic in the first half, with each player scoring just two points. McGruder got hot early in the second half to the tune of three 3-pointers, but he cooled off for the last 11 minutes of the game, finishing with 13 points.
McGruder’s only basket of the first half came on a tomahawk dunk in transition with 1:27 to play.
Releford was tasked with guarding McGruder throughout the game, and felt he kept K-State’s leading scorer uncomfortable.
“The second half my teammates told me they were going to continue to help me to let me get through down screens,” Releford said. “I just continued doing whatever the team needed me to do on the defensive end because we knew he was going to be the guy that they were going to on offense.”
McLemore, meanwhile, sparked the Jayhawks in a key stretch of the second half and helped keep the Wildcats at bay.
McLemore missed nearly 10 minutes of the first half in foul trouble, picking up his second foul at the 9:22 mark. With Withey taking a breather and McLemore out, the Jayhawks got quality minutes from Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe, who combined for nine points in the first half.
Weber said the Jayhawks were able to get production out of their bench that K-State just couldn’t match.
“Ellis and Tharpe coming in in the first half when they had foul trouble, those other guys made the difference and we didn’t have enough other guys to do damage,” he said.
Self, Releford see changes in K-State
Self said he can see progress in what Weber is doing at K-State, and says it looks like a good combination of old and new for the Wildcats.
“I think the combination of Frank (Martin) recruiting well and (Weber) coaching them up has worked very well for them,” he said. “Bruce can coach, there is no question he can coach. I think he’s done a great job.”
Self said in comparing it to some of his own situations going form job to job, Weber seems to be a guy who excels at getting teams to buy in to his systems.
“So much of it when you take over situations, it’s a lot what you inherited, but it’s a lot of what the mindset is coming over,” he said. “I struggled at Tulsa, Illinois we didn’t struggle at all and Kansas we labored a little bit doing that. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do and he’s been very good at doing them in a couple of places.
“He can coach and he also was left with some good players too, which helps.”
Kansas guard Travis Releord said the primary changes for K-State are on offense, which he said seems to run more efficiently now than in the past.
“They still have a lot of stuff that Frank taught them on toughness and offensive rebounding, but other than that, the offense is the only thing that’s really changed,” he said. “For the better.”
Self on the rivalry
For K-State, there is no bigger rival than KU. But the Jayhawks are transitioning from no longer playing its most-hated rival in Missouri, which abandoned the rivalry tradition in its move to the SEC.
Self said he doesn’t see the rivalry with K-State the same way he saw the Border War with the Tigers.
“I don’t feel any differently than I do every time coming over here,” he said. “They’re a big-time rival, but when you have Mizzou, all your pent up hate can go one direction. This was more of a respectful rivalry, and I still feel that way.
“I think it’s two teams, classy, playing hard, there was no talking, just kids playing hard. I’m leaving out of here knowing who are biggest rival is, but it’s not a hated thing.”