LAWRENCE — Ben McLemore was hauling down the court, Travis Releford filling the lane to his left. One defender, a helpless bystander from Chattanooga, stood between McLemore and the basket. And Releford, running free, timed his steps for an easy dump-off pass from McLemore and two points on the fast break.
Except the pass never arrived. McLemore glided in for the one-handed slam, rising high above the Chattanooga defender and finishing with his head nearly high enough to graze the rim.
Releford followed his teammate’s flight, his eyes widening as McLemore landed near the baseline.
“I didn’t really care…,” Releford said, smiling. “He got the dunk; we got two points out of it.”
By this moment on Thursday night, KU’s 69-55 victory wasn’t quite over. It was still early in the second half, and the Jayhawks had, shockingly, trailed by eight points at halftime against a middling opponent from the Southern Conference. But in this moment, it might as well have been. The Jayhawks were just getting started on a 33-7 run. And after 20 minutes of rather ugly basketball inside Allen Fieldhouse, the 16,300 fans in the building could finally breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy McLemore’s ensuing dunk fest.
“Ben showed a glimpse of his athletic ability tonight,” KU coach Bill Self said.
So in the end, this might be the biggest question. What will you remember? Will you remember the scuffling Jayhawks from the first half, when Chattanooga made eight three-pointers and took a 36-28 lead? Or will you remember McLemore turning in what appeared to be a breakout performance.
McLemore, a redshirt freshman, finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and enough highlight-reel dunks to fill a couple minutes of a YouTube montage. It was a welcome reprieve for KU, which was still trying to move on from a loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. And it could be more than that.
There’s a prevailing sentiment around the Kansas basketball program that McLemore must become something special if the Jayhawks want to jell into a team befitting of their No. 7 ranking. The term “special” is relative, of course. But in this case, the Jayhawks could really use a scorer who is able create his own shot and carry the offense when, as Self likes to say, the ball begins to stick.
On Tuesday against Michigan State, McLemore hoisted up just seven shots as Kansas fell 67-64 in the Champions Classic, an early-season lesson for both KU and McLemore. Self made it clear after the game that seven shots was not enough.
For a night, McLemore seemed to get the message. He led Kansas with 18 shots, eight more than any other Jayhawk, even while dislocating his finger twice during the second half.
“I just came tonight with the mindset of just being aggressive like coach wants me to be every night,” McLemore said, “and that’s what I did.”
Senior center Jeff Withey added a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds as KU outscored Chattanooga 41-19 in the second half. But what the heck, exactly, happened early?
Maybe it was just a hangover from the Michigan State loss. Or maybe the Jayhawks just didn’t anticipate this kind of shooting performance out of Chattanooga guard Farad Cobb.
Cobb hit six three-pointers in the first 20 minutes as the Mocs took a 36-28 halftime. It was KU’s biggest halftime deficit against a non-conference team since they suffered a home loss to Nevada on Dec. 1, 2005. And it was enough to make Self remember another nightmarish home game, when Oral Roberts’ Marchello Vealy shot the lights out in an upset of KU at Allen Fieldhouse in November of 2006.
“The dude from ORU,” Self called Vealy on Thursday.
Fortunately, for Self, it’s likely that few will remember the name Cobb six years from now. And much of the credit, Self said, went to senior Travis Releford, who guarded Cobb and Chattanooga’s other ballhandlers in the second half.
“In the second half,” Releford said, “I just told coach, ‘Just let me get him.’ ”
Releford did just that. And McLemore did the rest. It wasn’t the perfect recipe. But maybe McLemore learned something — something that will mean more later in the year.
“We don’t know how to run offense yet,” Self said. “We’re still trying to figure it out. So to me, that was pretty impressive.”