By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas State proved this season that it can beat anybody in the Big 12, just so long as the team lining up across from the Wildcats doesn’t have “Kansas” written across its jerseys.
Jeff Withey had 17 points and nine rebounds, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe added 12 points each, and the seventh-ranked Jayhawks pounded No. 11 Kansas State 70-54 on Saturday night, denying coach Bruce Weber’s team its first conference tournament title in more than 30 years.
The longtime rivals shared the regular-season crown, but Kansas won both of their previous meetings this season, leaving the Wildcats with a stale taste in the back of their mouths.
It must taste even worse now.
“I just wanted this victory very badly,” said Rodney McGruder, who scored 18 points to lead the Wildcats. “We worked so hard, worked so hard to get here, just to let it slip.”
The Jayhawks, who may have wrapped up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with the win, took a 24-16 lead by halftime and then slowly stretched it in the second half. They were able to relax in the closing minutes, assured of winning their ninth Big 12 tournament title.
Kansas (29-5) improved to 39-3 against the Wildcats (27-7) since the inception of the Big 12, and has won the last 11 games that they’ve played in conference tournaments.
“I felt like this game had to be played,” said the Jayhawks’ Elijah Johnson, smiling. “I think we fed into it, and I think they did, too, and at the end of the day, it was a championship game, and I felt it had to be played for this to be decided.”
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.
“It was a low-scoring game,” Rodriguez said, “because both teams were playing good defense.”
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, 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.
“Today was probably the poorest we played all week offensively in the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “but we look up and we’re still up eight because we defended so well.”
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, while 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 Weber to call timeout.
“The key was they got into transition,” he said. “They got some easy hoops in transition, and part of it was not doing as well offensively as we needed to, turning it over.”
Kansas stretched its lead to 60-46 on a 3-pointer by Ellis and 65-48 on a three-point play by Withey that essentially wrapped up the game.
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.
Might the Jayhawks carry a No. 1 seed right back to Kansas City?
“I think we’re deserving to be in the discussion,” Self said. “I think we’ll be for sure one of the five or six most highly ranked teams on the seed line.”