Allen Fieldhouse is one of the most electric places to watch a basketball game at any level and on Monday night, it was the catalyst that helped the Kansas Jayhawks wake from a three game slumber to pound the Kansas State Wildcats 83-62, before a deafening roar of 16,300 fans.
The gauntlet was thrown down 15 minutes before tip, as every seat was filled and the fans were at a fever pitch for a Kansas (20-4, 8-3) team who had fallen into second place in the Big 12, after three straight losses for the first time 2005. Kansas State (19-5, 8-3) was the team that had replaced them atop the conference and seemed poised to come in and pull off an upset.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “Our guys really manned up. We have been so bad for about a week, but the guys showed up. They fought tonight. I was so proud of them.”
History was against the Wildcats going into, who have now lost 46 of the last 49 games against the Jayhawks and on Monday night, the present was working against them in the person of Ben McLemore.
It is said that big players show up in big games and for McLemore, the night was his, as the redshirt freshman celebrated his 20th birthday by torching the Wildcats for 30 points on nine of 13 shooting, including six of 10 from three point range. He also collected seven rebounds.
“He is a big time guy,” Self said of McLemore. “They are just kids and they are 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 yo 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.”
His impact was felt early and often, as Kansas assumed a double-digit lead at the 9:55 mark of the first half and they would not see it slip below 11 again. In fact, after leading 47-29 at halftime, the Jayhawks would never lead by less than 15 points, even stretching their lead to 25 late in the game.
The other story of the night was assertiveness of senior center Jeff Withey, who surpassed Greg Ostertag’s school record for blocks and set the tone in the second half with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. The performance included a dunk on Kansas State’s Jordan Henriquez that left him posterized and leaving the floor temporarily with a bloody nose. The play and Withey presence only fueled the crowd.
“He was great tonight and he has been great all year long,” Self said. “He scored the ball, made his free throws and of course, he is such a defensive presence in there.”
Forward Kevin Young was also solid with a 13 point, nine rebound performance and many intangibles that help swing the game in Kansas’ favor.
The Kansas defense also came back to form, as the Wildcats labored from the field, only shooting 40% on 20-50 shooting and though, forward Rodney McGruder scored 20 points, 17 of those came in the second half, when the game was well in hand. In addition, the Jayhawks crushed K-State on the boards, out rebounding them 41-23.
Kansas now hopes to use the win as a spring board to another run that could deliver them a ninth straight Big 12 title. That quest will begin with Saturday night’s anticipated home matchup with Texas.
“I’m excited for it.” Self said. “It’s always a great time when (ESPN College) Gameday is here and we are playing a Texas team that has (Myck) Kabongo back and they are dangerous. We always have great games against Texas, always close, so, it should be fun.”