When Kansas needed him, he was there to provide the lift. When the Jayhawks had to get that tough basket inside or that big play to shift the momentum, he was there.
And no, it wasn’t Thomas Robinson — KU’s all-everything big man in the middle.
It was Jeff Withey who did the heavy lifting Monday night — a relative unknown commodity until recently — who put the fourth-ranked Jayhawks on his back and helped carry them to a 59-53 victory over Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum.
The 7-foot junior, who was just named Big 12 Player of the Week, netted 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks on a night when Robinson struggled to find much of an offensive rhythm against the Wildcats (17-8, 6-7 Big 12).
Robinson, who finished with four fouls, had 10 points and nine rebounds, while turning the ball over five times.
Withey, on the other hand, finished plays at the rim with a trio of ally-oop dunks, a pair of tip-ins and a big three-point play toward the end of the first half to help the Jayhawks (21-5, 11-2) get out to a 28-18 halftime lead. Withey played a career-high 36 minutes in the win and saved his best two plays for last when he swatted Jordan Henriquez with 46 seconds left and then again on Angel Rodriguez with 32 seconds to go — both while holding on to a 55-51 lead.
“Thomas is probably going to be the main focus for everybody,” said KU guard Tyshawn Taylor, who finished with a team-high 20 points. “They sent a lot of guys at him — they were rough with him, banging him a little bit. I think when Thomas is getting played like that it just opens so much up for Jeff.”
Everything has opened up for Withey of late, as the former Arizona transfer has reached double figures in scoring in 10 of his last 11 games — including a career-high 25 points against Baylor last week and 18 points and 20 rebounds in KU’s win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“He played really good against Baylor and he played really good against Okie State, but he was a lot better tonight than he was in either one of those games,” KU coach Bill Self said. “This was a big-boy game and he has 18, 11 and nine when Thomas wasn’t Thomas. I thought he was just fabulous.”
Withey’s contributions, while great, have come as a bit of a shock to the Jayhawks this season. He averaged just 1.3 points per game his first year at Kansas and then 2.3 points last season.
“He’s awesome,” K-State coach Frank Martin said of Withey. “As a coach, I root for guys to get better… As a fan of the game, I try to teach kids, when you see somebody play with the confidence that that young man is playing with, you make the improvement.
“That’s a guy that couldn’t even get in the game last year. Bill tried to play him, but would take him right back out. Now he’s dominating Big 12 games. I don’t think there is a kid in the country that does what he does for his team right now.”
Now, Withey appears to be a vital cog for the Jayhawks if they’re to make another run at the Final Four.
“For somebody to come out of left field, I don’t think I can remember somebody as dominant,” Self said. “To go from scoreless to now — how do you win without him?
“It’s such a bonus for us because Thomas trusts him and those two should get better playing with each other as (Withey) continues to produce and take pressure off of him.”