KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas wasn’t about to share this title with Kansas State.
Jeff Withey had 17 points and nine rebounds, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe added 12 points each, and the seventh-ranked Jayhawks pounded the No. 11 Wildcats 70-54 on Saturday night to win their ninth Big 12 tournament championship.
The top-seeded Jayhawks (29-5), who shared the regular-season title with their in-state rival, took a 24-16 lead at halftime and then slowly stretched it in the second half.
The Wildcats (27-7) struggled to match Withey and Ellis in the paint, losing for the third time this season to the Jayhawks and for the 47th time in their last 50 meetings.
Rodney McGruder scored 18 points despite a poor first half, and Angel Rodriguez had 10 for Kansas State, which still has not won a conference tournament in more than 30 years.
The Jayhawks, who may have earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with the win, sure have had Kansas State’s number. They’ve won their last 11 match-ups in league tournaments, and have won 39 of the 42 games they have played overall since the inception of the Big 12.
That includes all three games this season.
The interest in Round 3, the first meeting between the schools in a league tournament title game since 1980 — back in the days of the old Big Eight — resulted in a record crowd of 19,256.
The ticket was so hot that Eric and Faith DeVault, who were married Saturday morning in suburban Kansas City, were given a pair as a gift and turned out for the game still in their tuxedo and wedding dress — though Faith ditched her heels for a pair of flats.
They were treated to a first half that would have made Bill Snyder and Charlie Weis proud.
Two of the best defensive teams in the country, Kansas and Kansas State made more blocks and tackles than layups and jump shots over the first 20 minutes. Both teams committed nine turnovers, and the Wildcats had just three assists while going 6 of 27 from the field.
Kansas State actually struck first, pulling ahead 11-8 on a 3-pointer by Martavious Irving with 11:44 remaining in the half. But the Jayhawks buckled down on defense and the Wildcats didn’t make another field goal until Rodriguez rattled in a deep 3 with 1:25 left on the clock.
Meanwhile, Elijah Johnson and Tharpe each hit 3-pointers during a 14-2 run by the Jayhawks, and a bucket by Kevin Young in the closing seconds made it 24-16 at the break.
It was Kansas State’s lowest-scoring half this season, and the second-lowest by Kansas.
McGruder, who scored 24 points in a quarterfinal win over Texas and 24 in the semifinals against Oklahoma State, had four points on 2-of-9 shooting in the first half.
Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks’ star freshman, was scoreless after missing three 3-pointers.
The Wildcats finally got into a rhythm early in the second half, and a put-back off McGruder’s miss by big Thomas Gipson got them to 28-25. But that’s when Kansas once against clamped down on defense, and the result was another 12-3 to seize control.
Young started it with a bucket around the rim, Tharpe hit an open 3-pointer and then made a nice feed to Travis Releford for a dunk. A few minutes later, Tharpe hit another 3-pointer to give the Jayhawks a 43-31 and force an incensed Kansas State coach Bruce Weber to call timeout.
Kansas stretched its lead to 60-46 on a 3-pointer by Ellis, who scored a career-high 23 points in a semifinal win over Iowa State, and 65-48 on a three-point play by Withey.
The Wildcats never could get the lead under 10 the rest of the way as Kansas improved to 9-1 in Big 12 tournament title games. The Jayhawks also improved to 6-0 this season at Sprint Center, which just so happens to be a host site for the NCAA tournament next weekend.
Kevin Lonnquist’s Take
This truly was the Bill Self Invitational this weekend in Kansas City.
Back in January, I called this conference, “Kansas, and nine guys named Herb.” The way the Jayhawks were playing back then gave the impression that they were going to go undefeated in the league. It didn’t turn out that way, as they split the Big 12 title with Kansas State.
But the label returned this weekend in the Sprint Center as the Jayhawks made their charge toward earning a No. 1 seed.
They dismantled Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State by an average of 19.7 points. They were balanced in the front court between Jeff Withey, Kevin Young and Perry Ellis. Their guards continued their robust play betwen Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and super freshman Ben McLemore – even though he only had five in the championship game.
But the key for the entire season for the Jayhawks has been their defense. They really do a great job of smothering people and denying them good looks. In the three games, Texas Tech shot 39 percent, Iowa State shot 40 percent and Kansas State shot 35 percent. Defense wins and the Jayhawks are Big 12 tournament champions and potentially on the top line of the NCAA tournament because of this run.
They will be back in the Sprint Center next week for the first and second rounds of the tournament. They definitely have a chance to return to the Final Four in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alas, you still have to wonder, how did they lose at TCU?
As for Kansas State, you couldn’t ask for a better debut season for first-year coach Bruce Weber. His group should still be in pretty good shape for a No. 4 seed. You don’t share a conference title and play in the finals of the tournament and not be really good. Plus, the program has one of the best players in the conference in senior Rodney McGruder. They just couldn’t match the Jayhawks.
Final projection seeds for the NCAA Tournament:
Kansas — 1
Kansas State — 4
Oklahoma State — 5
Iowa State — 10
Oklahoma — 11