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Jayhawks Stay in Thick of Big 12 Race With Win over Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Kansas

Desperation plus the extraordinary homecourt advantage of Allen Fieldhouse came in handy Monday night for the Kansas Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks (21-7, 10-5 in Big 12) defeated the Wildcats (21-7, 11-4), 64-49, in a game the Jayhawks simply had to win in order to have an outside chance of preserving their streak of Big 12 regular-season titles. The streak stands at 14 solo or shared titles in a row, and a loss to the Wildcats would have been the streak’s death blow. Three games back of Kansas State with three games remaining? That wasn’t happening.

But, with the win the Jayhawks are a game back now. Sure, they still need some help. For starters, K-State has to lose another game. So does Texas Tech, which is now tied with K-State for the league lead going into its game with Oklahoma State on Wednesday. But, as that legendary philosopher Lloyd Christmas said many years ago, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

Yes, Kansas. There’s a chance.

This wasn’t an impossible task for the Jayhawks, of course. But coming off that horrid road loss to Texas Tech on Saturday one had to wonder if there might be a hangover of sorts. Plus, it was a rivalry game on Big Monday. So you never know what is going to happen.

The Wildcats and Jayhawks have played each other continuously since 1912. But the Wildcats’ luck at Allen Fieldhouse had been awful going into Monday’s game. The Wildcats were 6-57 at the Phog going into the game. The building opened in 1955 and the Wildcats were the first opponent.

An additional problem for the Wildcats? Kansas head coach Bill Self doesn’t lose on Big Monday, at least not going into this one. His Jayhawks were 28-0 on Big Monday.

And, as always, the fans brought the atmosphere.

Still, I actually picked the Wildcats going into this game. Stupid? Probably. But I felt like the Wildcats had the momentum going into this one. And, frankly, they did. The Wildcats had won 11 of their last 13 games going into the game. This senior class had finally notched a win over Kansas a few weeks ago at Bramlage Coliseum. Monday night represented the opportunity to slam the door shut on the Jayhawks’ 14-season league winning streak. And, after the first four minutes, the Jayhawks didn’t have a basket. Not a point. Kansas head coach Bill Self finally chose to take his first timeout rather than wait for the under-16 media timeout.

Wise choice. That seemed to reset the Jayhawks.

Kansas won this game for a few reasons that had nothing to do with the homecourt advantage. In the first half, when the Jayhawks’ stars struggled, Mitch Lightfoot had some huge plays. He’s been largely forgotten about this season, but last year he gave the Jayhawks quality minutes off the bench and at times was in the starting lineup. Lightfoot ended up Monday with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists off the bench. That energy that serves him so well was on display all night as he had a season-high in points.

Marcus Garrett pitched in, too. Kansas missed this guy when he was out with an injury and he returned Saturday against Texas Tech to score 9 points. On Monday he scored only 6 points, but both were 3-pointers and both came in the first half. The Jayhawks have not shot well from the arc this season, so anything they can get from Garrett helps. Between Garrett and Lightfoot the pair had a trio of Kansas’ eight 3-pointers on the night.

Then Dedric Lawson marched into the equation. The 6-foot-9 forward notched his 17 double-double of the season, scoring 18 points and snagging 14 rebounds, with a good portion of that coming in the second half. It helped slam the door shut on the Wildcats’ hopes of a comeback.

Finally, Kansas’ defense came into the picture. The Jayhawks have been inconsistent there for much of the season, but on Monday they played some of the best man-to-man defense I’ve seen them play all season, holding the Wildcats to 31 percent shooting from the floor. Kansas ended up with six steals.

Kansas State just didn’t play well, period. Kansas had something to do with that. But after taking a 5-0 lead in the first four minutes of the game the Wildcats scored 44 points the rest of the way. I was surprised at not just the poor shooting but, at times, the lack of any significant flow on offense. There were times the Wildcats just dribbled down and shot it. The Wildcats clearly deviated from their game plan when it came to the types of shots they took. They didn’t drive to the basket enough. They settled for too many 3’s. When your offense is predicated on halfcourt flow and working the shot clock, taking unrealistic shots too often puts you in a tough position. That’s where the Wildcats ended up. They did as much of this to themselves as the Jayhawks did to them. Were they rattled by the Phog? Maybe, just maybe.

Only Kamau Stokes ended up in double figures with 12 points. Forward Dean Wade had 8 points. Guard Barry Brown Jr. had just 4 points and all were in the first half. I would have taken any action if you had told me before the game that Brown wouldn’t clear double digits. It had only happened four times this season going into the game and just once in Big 12 action, against Texas on Jan. 2. That game Wade wasn’t on the floor. Kansas State wasn’t going to win with Wade and Brown playing like that. The Wildcats were outplayed. Simple as that.

Now to the Big 12 race. Texas Tech has a game on Wednesday with Oklahoma State. Win that game and the Red Raiders remain tied with the Wildcats for the Big 12 lead. The two teams split their season series. Both teams have three games remaining after the mid-week schedule this week. Who’s left?

Kansas State: vs. Baylor, at TCU, vs. Oklahoma. Only Baylor has a winning record in Big 12 play.

Texas Tech: at TCU, vs. Texas, at Iowa State. Only Iowa State has a winning record in Big 12 play (Texas is .500), but ISU beat Texas Tech in Lubbock earlier this season.

So this race isn’t nearly over. Kansas State and Texas Tech are as capable of winning out as they are of losing one or more of the final three games this season. And if so, well that plays into Kansas’ hands. The Jayhawks’ final three games:

Kansas: At Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, vs. Baylor. That schedule looks soft, but remember that the Jayhawks have just two Big 12 road wins this season.

Kansas HAD to win Monday night. They got it. But the road to a share of the Big 12 title is nowhere near complete. The Jayhawks still need help. Will they get it? Will they stumble? Or will either Kansas State or Texas Tech march on to win their final three games?

Right now only the Wildcats and Red Raiders control their own destiny.

Earlier on Monday, in Ames, Iowa, Iowa State (20-8, 9-6) put a bandage on its two-game losing streak by beating Oklahoma (17-11, 5-10), 78-61. Iowa State needed the win to keep its NCAA Tournament resume from sustaining further damage, as a second-straight loss to a team with a losing record in Big 12 action would not have looked good to the committee. So ISU became the fourth team in the league to reach at least 20 wins for the season.

ISU shot nearly 50 percent from the 3-point line as Marial Shayok had 21 points and Talen Horton-Tucker had 18 more. Also key? ISU outrebounded OU, one of the league’s best rebounding teams, by 3.

OU got a double-double out of Kristian Doolittle (15 points, 11 rebounds), another 12 points out of Christian James and 12 from Jamuni McNeace off the bench. And while this was a close game at the break, ISU’s overall shooting in the second half was just too much. At one point ISU was 6-for-8 from the 3-point line in the second half to help its cause. The Sooners still feel like an NCAA Tournament team, but a win this weekend against West Virginia is a must.

We’ll round up the rest of the Big 12 in our mid-week wrap on Thursday morning. West Virginia hosts TCU on Tuesday night, while Texas Tech hosts Oklahoma State and Baylor hosts Texas on Wednesday night.

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