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Withey leads KU rout on Senior Night

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, March 4, 2013, at 8:47 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 14, 2013, at 2:29 p.m.

— LAWRENCE — You might say that Jeff Withey had been plotting this moment for more than four years. Senior night. Allen Fieldhouse. A fast break with senior guard Elijah Johnson pitching the ball back to him in perfect rhythm as he trailed the play.

Withey, a 7-foot senior center, caught the ball at the top of the key.

“He had no choice,” Elijah Johnson would say.

In the days leading up to Kansas’ Senior Night on Monday, a day that would end with a 79-42 demolition of Texas Tech, Withey had let his teammates in on a little secret. In nearly five years at Kansas, including a redshirt campaign, Withey had never attempted a three-pointer.

Four years ago, when he arrived on campus, he would have never even dared. He was a skinny beanpole from the beaches of San Diego, a kid who was just trying to find out why Kansas coach Bill Self wouldn’t stop yelling at him.

He also knew his history. Former KU center Scot Pollard, another San Diego native, had once drilled a three-pointer on Senior Night in 1997, finishing his career with a perfect one-for-one mark from downtown.

So here was the moment. Senior Night. Allen Fieldhouse. More than five minutes left in the first half. And the Jayhawks were in the middle of one of those mind-numbing zones that only seem to happen on nights like this.

Withey was never getting another chance. And this being Senior Night, the basketball gods obeyed.

“I knew it was gonna go in,” Withey would say. “I was telling the guys before, how am I going to celebrate it?”

It was that kind of night at Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas won its 30th straight home finale. The obliteration of the Red Raiders sets up a de facto Big 12 title game for No. 4 Kansas (26-4 overall and 14-3 in the Big 12) on Saturday at Baylor. The Jayhawks can clinch at least a share of their ninth straight Big 12 title. And this senior class would also become the sixth straight KU class to win four straight Big 12 titles.

“This is great,” Self said of Monday’s celebration, “and they’re gonna remember this night for the rest of their lives. But you don’t get any hardware for winning (against Texas Tech). But you do for winning Saturday.

“And they know that.”

It’s been said many ways, of course. But it’s no wonder the Jayhawks never lose on Senior Night.

On Monday night, Self put all four seniors into the starting lineup for the 26th time this season. Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Kevin Young. They’d all get a chance to bask in the moment.

Withey, the kid who grew up playing volleyball on San Diego’s beaches, couldn’t miss. He finished with a game-high 22 points and four blocked shots — and closed out his last game at Allen Fieldhouse as the all-time leading shot blocker in KU and Big 12 history.

“It still hasn’t really hit me,” Withey said. “I don’t think it will for a little while. But the Fieldhouse has been really good to us.”

Johnson, who grew up watching his dad coach in Gary, Ind., finally looked like the point guard he always wanted to be. He dished out nine assists in the first half and finished with a career-high 12.

“I really think Elijah keys it all,” Self said. “When he’s athletic, and he’s got bounce, and his body feels good, we’re a totally different team.”

For Young, the bouncy power forward who once spent a season as an assistant coach at a junior college, the night meant 14 points and a reverse alley-oop during the Jayhawks’ 22-4 first-half run.

And for Releford, the Kansas City native who has been on campus the longest, the moment would come on a body-contorting finish in the lane during the first half. Releford has become the master of these old-man, rec-center drives. And this final one in Allen Fieldhouse provided two of his 13 points.

After the game, Self would call Releford “the rock our team.”

Of course, if Monday night was about sending off four seniors, it might have also been the Allen Fieldhouse swan song for freshman guard Ben McLemore, who will have to choose between NBA riches and another season in Lawrence.

“He may come back,” Self told the crowd after the game, “he may not … but don’t hold your breath on that one.”

It was a reminder. This is an age of one-and-done stardom. Freshmen don’t always become seniors. But for 40 minutes inside Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas’ four seniors had a night they couldn’t describe. And the best part, Johnson said, is that they’ll get a chance to play again.

“We’re not dwelling on the moment,” Johnson said. “… Right now, it’s just time to rock out. And when I say rock out, just let it loose.”

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