LAWRENCE — There is an art to the blocked shot. It takes timing, athleticism and the sort of length that can only be ascertained from life’s genetic lottery.
Kansas’ Jeff Withey possesses all three of these gifts, of course. And if you ask him what makes him such a great shot-blocker, he may bring up his days as a stud volleyball player on the beaches of San Diego. Mostly, though, it’s a feel thing. And how can you explain that?
It’s better to witness it, to watch Withey set up shop in front of the rim and spend the night sending shots back the other way. It was easy to do on Monday night, when Withey recorded a KU single-game record with 12 blocked shots in a 70-57 victory over San Jose State at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Pretty stoked,” Withey said.
Withey’s performance was so dominating — he recorded just the second official triple-double in Kansas history — that it was easy to lose sight of the big picture: The Jayhawks were downright lackluster down the stretch while nearly coughing up a 60-36 lead midway through the second half.
“He won the game for us single-handedly,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Withey would finish the night with 16 points and 12 rebounds to along with his 12 blocks, joining Cole Aldrich as the only player in KU history to register an official triple-double. (KU greats Wilt Chamberlain and B.H. Born unofficially accomplished the feat in the 1950s, before KU kept track of blocks or assists.)
“They just kept on driving in, and I just kept on blocking them,” Withey said. “That’s what I do.”
But there was Kansas, still protecting a seven-point lead with Withey missing two free throws with 2:10 left in the second half. San Jose State had closed hard with a 16-0 run. Spartans senior James Kinney would finish the night with a game-high 30 points. And the Jayhawks’ offense suffered through a 10-minute drought.
“We (stunk),” Self said. “We couldn’t pass it, dribble it, shoot it, screen it, rebound it. We didn’t do anything.
“Has anyone ever gone 10 minutes in the fieldhouse without making a field goal?”
Self again said he was unhappy with the offensive pace. And senior guard Elijah Johnson, Self said, was slowed after taking a shot to the knee last week in Kansas City at the CBE Classic.
And with just more than a minute left, Kansas still needed to run a set play to get Johnson an open jumper. Johnson buried the shot, extending the lead back to 66-57. And Withey put an exclamation point on his night with a swinging rejection that turned into a windmill dunk for Ben McLemore on the other end.
“We get caught standing around watching Jeff like a fan or something,” Johnson said. “That’s when we need to snap back into to it, because he can’t do everything on his own. But Jeff saved us a lot of times.”
The lead had been built on the back of a Withey block part in the opening minutes of the second half. The Jayhawks went on an 18-0 run and Withey had double figures in points and rebounds with more than 10 minutes left in the game.
The Jayhawks were returning to action after a five-day layoff for Thanksgiving. And there were certainly moments that appeared to be lingering effects of a holiday hangover. KU was shooting just 37 percent after 10 minutes and finished the first half shooting 45.7 percent from the field. To be clear: This was a San Jose State team that entered with losses against New Orleans and Houston on its resume. But the Spartans, long and athletic, outrebounded Kansas 45-41.
“We were awful,” Self said. “If it’s not Jeff, it’s nobody.”
Withey, who entered the night averaging five blocks per game, had previously shared the KU single-game blocks record with Aldrich after recording 10 blocks against North Carolina State in a Sweet 16 victory last season.
Last Tuesday, after recording seven blocks against Saint Louis in the championship game of the CBE Classic, Withey had coyly remarked that he really wanted 10. On Monday night, he finished with an even dozen.
“I had no idea,” Withey said. “I knew I was getting up there, but I didn’t know I had 12. That’s for sure.”