LAWRENCE — Ben McLemore has widely been considered the frontrunner for the Big 12 Player of the Year this season.
On Monday, he looked every bit of the part for rival Kansas, unloading for a game-high 30 points to lead his 14th-ranked Jayhawks past No. 10 Kansas State 83-62 at Allen Fieldhouse.
The freshman scored just 11 points in the first meeting between rivals — a 59-55 loss for the Wildcats in Manhattan. But with the Jayhawks marred in a three-game losing streak and trying to avoid their first four-game skid since the 1988-89 season, McLemore was there, and in a big way, on his birthday nonetheless.
Celebrating his 20th birthday in front of 16,000 of his closest friends, McLemore helped spring the Jayhawks out to a commanding first-half rout with 17 points — including a pair of 3s. Behind his 5-of-6 shooting in the first half, KU charged out front 47-29 at the break. McLemore finished 9 of 13 from the field and 6 of 10 from behind the arc, while grabbing seven rebounds in 36 minutes.
“He’s a big time guy,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “These are just kids and they’re facing different pressures than what they have ever faced in their life. I think that Ben, the last week or two weeks, hasn’t had that same smile, that same youthful exuberance that you would expect him to have. Tonight, he just played. He’s such a talented kid that when he just goes out and plays and has that bounce, he is hard to guard.”
The Wildcats (19-5, 8-3 Big 12) had no answer for the talented freshman, who came just three points shy of matching his career high he set against Iowa State earlier this season.
“Today, we let him roam too much and he got going and made shots,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “For all freshman, you are going to run into tough games, but he got home and feeling good and got a couple down.”
With the win, Kansas (20-4, 8-3) moved into a tie with the Wildcats atop the Big 12 standings. And with the season series wrapped up between the two schools, both the Jayhawks and Wildcats now control their own destinies going forward in the hopes of winning the league title.
But more importantly for the Jayhawks, McLemore’s performance helped show Kansas is still very much alive and a player on the national stage, despite its struggles the past week with losses to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma.
“Coach told me to just go out there and play ball and not to worry about impressing him,” said McLemore, who’s scored in double figures in all but just two games this season. “I just needed to go out there and play my game, and that’s what I did. Naadir (Tharpe) helped me a lot. He gave me a lot of passes and saved some missed shots. It was great.”
It really was a team effort Monday night for the Jayhawks, who won for the 11th time in the last 12 games against K-State. Including McLemore, four players reached double figures for Kansas. Jeff Withey finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, becoming the school’s all-time shot blocker by passing Greg Ostertag.
Kevin Young, who scored just three points in the Jayhawks’ win in Manhattan, finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, while Travis Releford added 10 points. Tharpe was solid too, with seven points and a game-high eight assists.
“We just played as a team tonight, and we played Kansas basketball,” McLemore said. “We just went out there and gave it our all. We started on the defensive end by getting some stops.”
K-State returns to Bramlage Coliseum this Saturday to host Baylor (15-8, 6-4) at 6 p.m. on ESPNU.