When it was over, there was no doubt. The Kansas Jayhawks were at the top of the Big 12 mountain once and for all, as they overpowered past Kansas State 70-54 in the championship game of the Big 12 Championship, Saturday evening at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Despite, finishing the regular season tied with the Wildcats for the Big 12 title, the Jayhawks took care of K-State for the third time this season, culminating with a comfortable victory that capped off a tournament in which Kansas won each game by double figures. It was an emphatic statement that will propel Kansas into the NCAA Tournament as likely a number one seed next weekend.
“I thought we played really well and efficiently all three days over here. I think we guarded pretty well,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We rebounded the ball well, and today was probably the poorest we played offensively the first half, and then we look up and we're still up 8 because we defended and rebounded. I'm really happy with our guys, really proud of them. Different guys stepped up each and every night and we played a good team today. That's very deserving of their ranking and everything.”
Entering the third battle between the two rivals, both teams came out with like two boxers who were feeling each other out, early.
It was a first half that won't exactly go down as a memorable one by any stretch of the imagination. The half was dominated by defense and poor shooting by both squads, as they combined for only 40 points between them. At halftime, Kansas led just 24-16.
“Well, I think that we just played through it. A lot of our mistakes, a lot of momentum changes that we had, they gave us another shot, like every team should do. And I think that we just stayed into the game and we just continued to play. So we got good results.
The name of this game was defense. Kansas State went over 10 minutes without a made field goal in the first half. Even when the Wildcats' shooting improved in the second half, it didn't matter,” senior guard Elijah Johnson said.
Kansas State's Rodney McGruder scored 18 points, but needed 15 shots to amass that total, thanks to lockdown defense from Kansas forward Travis Releford, who had McGruder exhausted by midway through the second half.
“I think when Travis is really tuned in, I think he's as good a perimeter player as there is in the country, I do,” Self said. “I think he can guard a 1, 2, 3. A lot of times a 4. And I think he can guard the ball. He can guard the drive. But what he is, he's really smart and he understands angles. And he did a great job playing angles today.”
Kansas' defense wore down Kansas State and even worse for the Wildcats, the Jayhawks offense took flight, led by center Jeff Withey, who took home most outstanding player hours for the tournament with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Freshman Perry Ellis continued his metamorphosis with 12 points and six boards, while guard Naadir Tharpe came off the bench to chip in 12 points of his own.
After winning their three tournament games by a combined 59 points, Kansas hopes to use the gained momentum to push towards a return to the Final Four, all while knowing that there is no doubt that they earned the right to say they were the best team in the Big 12, this season.