KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Travis Releford hung on the rim for an extra split-second, taking in the moment as his body contorted back toward the defensive end. It was late on Tuesday night in the championship game of the CBE Classic, and Kansas couldn’t quite shake Saint Louis.
The Billikens were knocking down shots, and the Jayhawks couldn’t land the knockout blow. Finally, there was a fast break, and Elijah Johnson broke into the open court. Releford filled the lane to his left, and Johnson slipped a pass behind his back as Releford finished the play with an emphatic flush.
It wasn’t over at this point. But it felt like it. The partisan KU crowd inside the Sprint Center came to its feet. Releford let out a scream. And nearly five minutes later, Kansas finished off Saint Louis 73-59 to claim the early-season title.
Releford, a senior guard, had come to Kansas City, his hometown, in a shooting funk. Two nights later, he left as the tournament’s most valuable player after finishing with 23 points.
“I think it means a lot for my family and my city,” Releford said.
Releford, of course, has never much minded the background. He was once a top recruit out of Bishop Miege High. But the Kansas backcourt was loaded with talent when he arrived in Lawrence, so he quietly took a redshirt year during what should have been his sophomore season.
In those days, Bill Self once said he thought Releford could be a 1,000-point scorer at Kansas. It was high praise — even if some of it was intended to take some of the sting off his year on the sideline.
Even last year, when Releford emerged as a starter on a Final Four team, he was mostly a role player who preferred to talk about his defense or go out and win a loose ball.
But on Tuesday night, Saint Louis began the game with a clear strategy. The Billikens would clamp down on senior center Jeff Withey. And Releford would be left open on the wing. For Releford, it the basketball equivalent of a slap in the face.
“I’m a player,” Releford said. “So any player who is defended that way, should feel disrespect.”
Releford channeled the disrespect — and open looks — into 21 first-half points as KU built a 14-point lead.
“They made a decision not to guard him,” KU coach Bill Self said. “And he was unbelievable and made them pay.”
With a five-day break sandwiched around the Thanksgiving holiday, the Jayhawks can now feast on turkey and take stock of their season while the Tryptophan takes hold. It’s a season that feels a little more buoyant now, after two solid performances in the Sprint Center. Last week at this time, the Jayhawks were arriving home from Atlanta after a disappointing second-half collapse against Michigan State. What a different a week makes.
“We got better over here,” Self said. “That was the big key. You gotta try to win two games, but we need to get better. And we accomplished that.”
Freshman guard Ben McLemore now looks like an efficient scorer that the Jayhawks need, with plenty of potential still untapped. Senior center Jeff Withey is averaging nearly five blocks in the two games and tied his career high with 25 points on Tuesday.
Forward Kevin Young finally looks healthy, adding a jolt on both ends of the floor. And the KU defense held Saint Louis to just 26.1 percent shooting while forcing 10 turnovers in a smothering first half.
Finally, there was Releford, who left his hometown with some hardware after two productive nights in downtown Kansas City.
“I really think if you don’t worry about scoring,” Self said, “then scoring naturally comes. And I think that’s what happened tonight.”
The Jayhawks now have five days to rest before taking on San Jose State at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday. But a week after leaving Atlanta with a loss, this felt like an ideal two-night state in Kansas City.
“We got a lot closer… ” Withey said. “And losing like that early, it’s good and bad; it’s bad because you obviously lose, but it’s good because you realize you’re not as good as you think you are.”